Biofuel Sustainability Standards Emerging, But Not Created Equal

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“Sustainable development” has generated substantial buzz since the concept was brought into focus by the Brundtland Commission’s now famous 1987 report, Our Common Future. The Commission defined the concept as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Since then, the definition has been debated and adapted for specific purposes throughout policy, academic, governmental, and organizational circles. Many of these interpretations are only relevant to the circumstances in which they are applied. In the context of biomass and biofuels, sustainability standards are specific rules and criteria by which the production, transportation, and processing of feedstocks can be assessed for their environmental, social, and other values.

In the international community, sustainability guidelines for biomass have begun to emerge, but remain aspirational at best. While high oil prices, increasing pressures to mitigate climate change effects, and efforts to boost rural agricultural production throughout the world will continue to sustain support for the development of biomass and biofuel resources, environmental concerns will temper optimistic projections for the industry.

Even so, biomass and biofuels remain an important piece of the future energy puzzle and sustainability standards will go a long way towards preventing another “ethanol bubble” by encouraging the develpment of diversified feedstocks.

Differentiation in the marketplace — both among different feedstocks (i.e., corn versus soy versus jatropha) and between the same feedstock (i.e. sustainably and unsustainably produced corn) — can be accomplished through sustainability standards by, either:

  1. Assisting consumers in judging whether given products are “environmentally friendly” and should be purchased or consumed (see Forest Stewardship Council), or
  2. Encouraging the production of “environmentally friendly” biofuels and bioenergy, while discouraging the production of products that harm the environment or local communities (see Carbon Stewardship Council).

But not all sustainability standards are created equal, which raises concerns about the utility of certification schemes. As with climate change, developing and developed countries are divided on the issue, with developing countries arguing that certification schemes do not always tailor solutions to local conditions.

Uncertainty and conflicting schemes would hamper efforts to increase global trade in biomass feedstocks as the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development warns in its 2008 report, Making Certification Work for Sustainable Development: The Case of Biofuels, “the proliferation of individual standards may damage the efficacy and credibility of certification.”

International coordination on these goals would have three main benefits over individual systems: standardization, transparency, and wider participation. While an international standard is preferred, getting there is not particularly easy. Multilateral processes by their nature are slow, particularly in the United Nations. For an industry already bloodied by indirect land-use change and greenhouse gas accounting challenges, a heavily regulated certification scheme could scare potential investors away.

Below is a chart providing links to reports and information on some of the emerging standards:

CSBO Draft Standards Voluntary certification system, which focus specifically on climate change, biological diversity, water quality and quantity, soil quality, socio-economic well-being, and integrated resources management planning (comment period open until December 7, 2009).
Sustainability Criteria and Certification Systems for Biomass Production Study analyzes existing biomass production sustainability criteria and certification systems that have been development and/or proposed to explore possibilities for both voluntary and obligatory EU based approaches are investigated.
Testing Framework for Sustainable Biomass (Cramer Report) Produced for the Dutch government, focuses on six themes: GHG emissions, competition with food, biodiversity, environment, prosperity, and social well-being.
Overview of Recent Developments in Sustainable Biomass Certification Produced by IEA Task 40 members, provides a comprehensive outline of initiatives on biomass certification from different viewpoints of stakeholders.
German Biomass Sustainability Ordinance (BioNachV) Ordinance contains sustainability criteria which refer to (a) a minimum required level of CO2 savings from biofuels as compared to fossil fuels through the life cycle of the product (30 per cent until 2010 and 40 per cent from 2011); (b) protection of natural habitats; and (c) sustainable cultivation of agricultural land.
DG Environment — Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) Directive that includes sustainability criteria and targets a reduction in lifecycle greenhouse gas

emissions from fuels consumed in the EU by 6% by 2020. Members of the European Parliament agree that a single GHG methodology and single set of sustainability criteria would be required for both Directives. How this is dealt with is as yet uncertain; they may for example be replicated in both Directives.

Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels Aim: to develop an international standard for sustainable biofuels production through a multi-stakeholder effort.

Mackinnon Lawrence is an attorney, principal consultant with Biomass Advisors, and editor & publisher of Biomass Intel. Article appearing courtesy Biomass Intel.

photo: Songkran

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