Biofuels: Can a global standard solve the sustainability problem?

Biofuels: Can a global standard solve the sustainability problem?

Biofuels are in the spotlight again for helping to
drive up both carbon emissions and food prices – but a new standard may
go some way to addressing the environmental, economic and social
issues. Rikki Stancich reports

The sustainability of biofuels has again been brought into question, this time by an independent review in the UK. The Gallagher Review,
commissioned by the UK government and released in July, concluded the
EU’s biofuels target of 10% of all fuels by 2020 could not be met
sustainably and advised that targets be scaled back.

The report
said that international regulatory frameworks are currently
insufficient to ensure that biofuel production takes place on marginal
or idle land, and that beyond 2020 a supply gap of suitable land may
result in unsustainable land conversion. It confirmed that biofuel
production is creating an upward pressure on food prices.

it also said that if robust, comprehensive and mandatory sustainability
standards are implemented now, a genuinely sustainable industry could

At present, a fragmented biofuel supply chain and a lack
of credible standards has prompted warnings against intensive energy
crop production from NGOs, research bodies and regulators such as the
UK ’s Renewable Fuels Agency, which produced the Gallagher Review.

They argue that a biofuel “landgrab”, triggered by US and European
renewable fuel targets, threatens to increase greenhouse gas emissions
via conversion of former croplands and forests, while also threatening
biodiversity, land rights and food security.

From this year, the UK’s Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RFTO)
obliges fossil fuel suppliers to supply an increasing percentage of
renewable fuels. But a progress report on the RTFO, published in
August, revealed that only 19% of the biofuels that comply with it meet
the environmental standards of such schemes as the UK ’s Assured Combinable Crops Scheme and Linking Environment and Farming.

Lack of Standards

UK intends to address environmental and social impacts by introducing
mandatory sustainability criteria for all biofuels in 2011. The
European Commission is also expected to introduce mandatory criteria
onto its agenda for the Renewable Energies Directive at the end of the
year. But as things stand, there is a dearth of regulatory standards.

A handful of standards have emerged recently for biofuel crops, such as the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, the Basel Criteria for Responsible Soy Production and the Better Sugarcane Inititave.
But these have yet to prove their credibility. And for emerging biofuel
crops, such as jatropha, sorghum and miscanthus, there are none.

such as Friends of the Earth and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), as well as
businesses such as BP, have expressed concern that the EU’s
sustainability criteria will focus solely on environmental aspects and
fail to take account of social and economic issues, as well as the
indirect impact of land conversion on commodity prices.

Hitting the Mark?

these reasons, NGOs such as the WWF, businesses such as Shell, BP,
Petrobras, and government bodies such as the UK government and the
European Commission, have welcomed a new umbrella standard called “Version Zero” of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB).

in consultation with stakeholders, including corporations, governments
and NGOs, the RSB provides a global set of sustainability principles
and criteria that address the direct impacts of biofuel production on
air, water and soil quality, human, land and labour rights, as well as
its economic implications for local communities. Its generic nature
means that it can be applied to all biofuel feedstocks.

acknowledges that several of its core principles are likely to be
compromised by indirect impacts on commodity prices and emissions
resulting from land conversion. It says that further research is needed
if these impacts are to be avoided and plans to engage with
stakeholders on these issues over the next year.

The response to the RSB so far has been positive. The International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labeling Alliance,
a non-profit organisation that assesses the credibility of voluntary
standards, has already accepted the RSB as an associate member – a move
that Jean-Phillipe Denruyter, WWF global bioenergy coordinator, says
lends credibility to the standard.

At present, the RSB
standard lacks regulatory teeth, given that it only comprises a set of
principles and criteria, with no indicators and metrics to back it up.
But Denruyter says that over the next six months, the RSB promises
consultation and field tests will be carried out to develop more
specific indicators against which the performance of biofuel projects
can be measured.

RSB representative Sebastien Haye says the
standard’s indicators have been developed with the guidance of a panel
of experts from certification bodies such as the European certifier SGS, the global coffee certifier UTZ Certified, palm oil certifier Green Palm, and the Forest Stewardship Council.
The results of this next consultation, which are expected to finalise
the standard, will be published as “Version One” in April 2009.

Gavilan, global sustainability strategy manager at BP, tells that BP is likely to adopt the RSB as its
sourcing standard.

Does the European Commission plan to use the
RSB for regulatory purposes? EC spokesperson Martin Selmayr says:
“Although it is not possible simply to copy the RSB indicators into
Community law, the Commission proposes to pay close attention to the
lessons learnt through the RSB.” He adds that once the Commission’s
sustainability criteria have been translated into law, it will “give a
boost” to the RSB. The EC will be in a position to accredit it as
“providing a good standard of reliable information about the
sustainability of biofuels”.

A spokesperson for the UK ‘s
Renewable Fuels Agency is more cautious. “The RSB is at the very
beginning of its process,” he says. “The quantification methodologies
for direct impacts are still very new and more research is needed”.

Gavilan notes that the RSB’s efficacy will depend on legislation and
regulatory infrastructure in the nations that take it on. “With
effective government enforcement, the RSB standard provides the
instrument that enables biofuels to be produced and managed
sustainably. But its ultimately up to the organisations applying it to
specify the indicators and to effectively regulate them.”

biofuel supply chain often stems from producer countries, such as
Malaysia , Indonesia , Brazil and sub-Saharan African nations, where
legal infrastructures and regulatory mechanisms vary extensively. “Add
to this a highly fragmented supply chain and it becomes extremely
difficult for end suppliers to guarantee that the product they supply
is sustainable,” says Gavilan.

At some point the RSB may evolve
into a third-party certification and verification scheme, which would
make sustainability assurance an easier task for regulators. “A lot of
companies are already asking for RSB certification, but it is too early
for that yet – the RSB has yet to finalise its standards,” says
Denruyter. He says in the future it is likely that the RSB will be used
to provide proof of compliance, enabling companies to claim that their
biofuels are sustainable.

The RSB may deliver the unity that the
biofuels industry currently lacks, or so the general consensus
suggests. But in its present form, it still falls short of the mark in
addressing the core issue of whether biofuels are sustainable overall.
In the interim, the Gallagher Review’s “wait and see” recommendation –
to lower biofuel targets until production is demonstrably sustainable –
may prove prudent.

Fact Box 1: Quick Facts on Biofuels

Bioethanol and biodiesel currently account for more than 90% of global biofuel use.

is a distilled liquid produced by fermenting sugars from crops such as
sugarcane, maize, sugarbeet, cassava, wheat, sorghum, or from starch
crops like corn.

Second generation bioethanol
lignocellulosic – makes use of a range of lignin and cellulose
materials, such as short-rotation wood coppices, and energy grasses
such as miscanthus. Bioethanol can be used in pure form in adapted
vehicles, or blended with gasoline.

Biodiesel is
produced from organic oils, usually from the oily fruits of crops such
as rapeseed, sunflower, soya, castor, oil palm, coconut or jatropha,
but also from animal fats, tallow and waste cooking oil.

Second generation biodiesel
technologies synthesise diesel fuels from wood and straw. Like
bioethanol, biodiesel can be used in pure form in adapted vehicles or
blended with automotive diesel.

*Second generation biofuels are unlikely to become mainstream before 2015.

*In future, a third generation of biodiesel technologies will use oils from algae.

Source: International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)

Fact Box 2: The biofuel landgrab

Brazil, 28 million hectares are currently under cultivation for soy and
sugarcane. By 2020, soy and sugarcane plantations are expected to cover

In Indonesia, 6.5Mha are dedicated to oil palm plantations. By 2025, oil palm plantations are projected to require 16.5-26Mha.

In China, biofuel cultivation alone is expected to require an additional 13.3Mha by 2020.

Source: Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), 2008

Further Reading:

of US Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through
Emissions from Land-Use Change”, by Timothy Searchinger et al, February
2008 (here)