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Hawaii’s biodiesel production supports circular economy model

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Image source: Pacific Biodiesel

The world needs community-based, equitable climate change solutions. Kelly King, Maui County councilmember and co-founder of Pacific Biodiesel, reflects on her experience at COP26 and explores the role of biofuels in supporting a circular economy.

26 years ago, my husband and I founded Pacific Biodiesel in Maui as a recycling solution for our island. Little did we realise that our community-based production model would one day provide and inspire local solutions to the escalating effects of a climate in crisis.

In Hawaii, climate change is at our shores – sea-level rise erosion, increased storm destruction, the decline of endangered species and fragile ecosystems, and threats to traditional indigenous culture are just some of the impacts expected to worsen. As a result, the window for meaningful action to transition away from fossil fuels, reduce emissions, and avoid the worst impacts of climate catastrophe is rapidly closing.

My experience as being the founder of a pioneering renewable energy company and also an elected councilmember initiated the invitation I received to participate in COP26 as a delegate of ICLEI USA.

“Your standing as a female leader in the Pacific Islands is especially important. Yours is a voice we want to have heard around the world from Glasgow,” ICLEI USA Executive Director Angie Fyfe messaged me in September 2021.

As the newest Board member of ICLEI, the largest global network of local and regional governments devoted to solving the world’s most intractable sustainability challenges, I was both honoured and challenged.

I participated in over a dozen panel discussions at COP26, often mentioning community-based biodiesel as an example of the circular economy – by utilising local resources to create products, jobs and businesses that benefit the local community through positive economic, social and environmental impacts.

Pacific Biodiesel is a model for the circular economy. For almost three decades, we’ve been diverting waste (used cooking oil and grease trap material from local restaurants), recycling it and processing it into one of the most important commodities – renewable fuel – and doing it in a way that provides jobs and keeps revenue in the local economy. Today, we sustainably farm sunflowers and other crops to create culinary oils for local restaurants, then later collecting and recycling the used cooking oil to produce more biodiesel.

Image source: Pacific Biodiesel
Image source: Pacific Biodiesel

At COP26, Hawaii’s governor made the bold statement that net zero, carbon neutrality, is not enough. We must pursue climate change solutions that achieve carbon negative results. That’s another reason community-based agriculture for energy is such a powerful solution for climate change.

Biodiesel has one of the lowest carbon footprints of any fuel. When we make it out of used cooking oil, we keep that potentially hazardous waste out of the landfill. When we make biodiesel from virgin oils, like sunflower oil, we let the plants do the hard work of converting sunlight into liquid oil, and sequestering carbon is part of our regenerative farming process. Community-based biodiesel is a solution that local communities can easily employ.

Mitigations to climate change need to include a just transition. Inflexible solutions often leave behind less fortunate, vulnerable populations. The big driving force of EVs, for example, is to replace all vehicles. Yet, if you already own a diesel vehicle, it’s a huge burden to buy an electric vehicle when you could just change to fuel with even higher greenhouse gas reductions than EVs. There are still diesel vehicles rolling out of factories that will be around for another 30 to 40 years.

Biodiesel is an industry that’s still growing – and unfortunately still not getting the recognition it deserves. Perhaps the industry has been invaded by large corporate interests to the point of engendering scepticism, but I still believe there is a community-based aspect that can bring us back to the purity of local solutions it was meant to be.

There are great opportunities for participation at the ground level, as part of the circular economy – through agriculture and local jobs – allowing rural communities to participate in climate mitigation and renewable energy while reaping direct economic benefits. The current fossil fuel infrastructure (ie. gas stations) could easily be repurposed for biofuels, and the firm power for backup generation, and especially evacuation movements, provided by locally produced biofuels will be critical to disaster response.

Returning from COP26, I was invigorated by the collaboration among Hawaii’s federal, state and county government leaders and our local communities to build on the experiences and new connections we made in Glasgow to initiate broader, faster action to help turn the tide on climate change back home, together. Let’s keep talking, keep equity in mind, study the facts and remain flexible!

Image source: Pacific Biodiesel

Kelly King, along with her husband Bob King, founded Pacific Biodiesel in 1995. Today, the company is the nation’s longest operating biodiesel producer and Hawaii’s only commercial producer of liquid biofuels. In her third term holding the South Maui residency seat of the Maui County Council, King is chair of the Council’s Climate Action, Resilience, and Environment (CARE) Committee and a member of ICLEI USA’s Board of Directors.

Maui County is a member of ICLEI’s network of local governments and a participant in the organization’s Race to Zero and Circle City Scan Pilot programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition to a sustainable circular economy.

King was recently appointed to the Local Government Advisory Committee of the Environmental Protection Agency. At COP26, Councilmember King was able to sign the Edinburgh Declaration, committing Maui County to support biodiversity and CitiesWithNature.

Additional resources:

Vilsack says the future of biofuels remains bright

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