BIOMASS HUB

global bioenergy supply chain intelligence

Biomass Sustainability

What is sustainability?

The concept of “sustainability” has been defined in many ways, but common to these definitions is the theme of meeting the needs of present and future generations.  To illustrate, “sustainable development,” a term advanced by the Brundtland Commission’s now famous report, Our Common Future (1987), is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, determined that there were three basic, generally applicable, and equally weighted interrelated pillars of sustainability:

  1. Economic. Economic growth is vital for technological advancement and the investment required to improve social services.
  2. Environment. Industrial growth and consumption should advance in a way that does not diminish the world’s natural resources.
  3. Social. People should be included in discussions and decisions that will impact on their communities.

What does sustainability have to do with biomass?

Since the release of Our Common Future, the definition of sustainability 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, 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.  The three pillars defined above form the backbone of biomass sustainability standards.

What are some examples of emerging biomass sustainability frameworks?

Emerging schemes seek to bring clarity, relevance, and standardization to a range of stakeholder efforts. Examples of biomass sustainability efforts:

Are biomass sustainability standards mandatory?

Not yet, but mandates like the U.S. EPA’s RFS2, California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), and emerging certification schemes in the EU are beginning to regulate the externalities associated with biofuel production (see Reigning in GHGs: Emerging Life Cycle Obligations). 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 feedstocks, environmental concerns will likely temper more optimistic projections for utilization.

Why comply with biomass sustainability standards?

For the biofuels, biopower, and biochemical industries, adhering to sustainability principles is increasingly about market access as companies begin to commercialize conversion processes.  Multinationals that violate social and environmental standards — however they are defined — risk backlash from local stakeholders, or worse, being kicked out of host countries altogether.

Adhering to sustainability standards is not just about maintaining goodwill and support for developing industries, but also about mitigating exposure to legal challenges. Within the context of climate change, multinational claims about greenhouse gas mitigation have given rise to stakeholder lawsuits.

How do biomass sustainability standards impact international trade?

Globally, efforts to negotiate climate regimes, regulate emissions from air travel, prevent deforestation, and secure water and food resources are elevating the standards by which biomass is utilized for power, fuels, and chemicals.  In the EU, battles over biofuel mandates are linked to multinational land grabs in the developing world as well as debates over the environmental implications of palm oil production (see The New Energy Geopolotics: the Biofuel-Land NexusFuels Made from Crops Struggle to Achieve Sustainability).  In the US, policies to promote ethanol production are running afoul of tightening ILUC regulations elucidated in EPA’s RFS2 and California’s LCFS, which potentially have important ramifications for international trade.

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 UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) 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.

What is the impact of biomass sustainability on feedstock markets?

Differentiation in the marketplace — both among different feedstocks (i.e., corn versus sugar versus soy) 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).

Unsustainable feedstocks and fuel pathways run the risk of being excluded from the emerging biofuel markets if they don’t meet increasingly restrictive standards.

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