Sustainability Certification for Biofuels
- Careless development of biofuels can have negative impacts on land, water, and wildlife. Such development can also tarnish fuel purchasers' admirable efforts to improve their environmental performance.
- Biofuel sustainability certification systems provide third-party verification that biofuel feedstocks are grown and converted into fuel in a sustainable manner, but not all certification systems are equal -- some are more environmentally protective than others.
- Effective certification systems cover the entire biofuel life cycle and provide comprehensive economic, social, and environmental coverage.
Poorly developed biofuels pose severe environmental risks. Procurement officials and risk managers should use only the most stringent and protective certification standards available. Yet assessing how different certification systems rank across the product life cycle is a complex undertaking. That is why NRDC evaluated the performances of several of the major sustainability systems. The report looks at systems developed by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB), the Council on Sustainable Biomass Production (CSBP), the International Sustainability & Carbon Certification (ISCC), the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS), Bonsucro, and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
NRDC examined these certification systems across major categories (key attributes, economic performance, environmental performance, and social performance) and then the numerous subcategories within each. Each certification system had strengths and weaknesses but the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials was clearly the most protective.
Large fuel purchasers are increasingly turning to biofuels to improve their environmental performance. These efforts are well-intentioned but warrant caution nonetheless. While biofuels certainly have environmental benefits, they can also cause severe damage if produced unsustainably because biofuel feedstocks are inextricably linked to land, water, and wildlife. Careless development can impact all of these resources and tarnish purchasers' admirable efforts. Unfortunately, many fuel purchasers do not have the time, resources, or expertise to analyze sustainability through each stage of the product life cycle. Biofuel sustainability certification systems have emerged to serve this purpose.
The right certification systems provide third-party verification that biofuel feedstocks are grown and converted into fuel in a sustainable manner. Thus, a credible system can reduce the complexity and effort of ensuring that biofuel purchases deliver environmental benefits and avoid controversy. Yet, not all certification systems are equal -- some are more protective of the environment than others.
Why Certification Systems?
Biofuel sustainability analysis is intricate and complex. Sustainability certification systems provide independent verification that stringent environmental measures are being observed throughout production. These systems have several benefits. First, existing laws are helpful but not always sufficiently stringent. Second, some laws provide important guidance but do not audit for sustainability at the facility level. Fuel purchasers may still find themselves affiliated with unsustainable fuels, despite statutory protection.
Sustainability certification systems verify environmental protections at the detailed field level. These systems thereby allow buyers to publicly demonstrate their environmental commitment. Finally, certification systems allow customers to identify and reward biofuel producers that take clear measures to protect the environment. In this way, biofuel purchasers encourage behaviors that are critical to developing a biofuel industry that is environmentally viable at scale.
What Do Certifications Systems Do?
Biofuel sustainability certification systems measure and verify environmental performance of fuels throughout all major stages of the product life cycle, including feedstock production, fuel production, and end use. Within each stage, the system should look at a range of criteria that influence environmental sustainability including impacts on water, soil, biodiversity, air, land use, and waste. These criteria should be subdivided into different indicators to measure sustainability at the project level. Within the water criterion, for instance, a system should evaluate indicators like water quantity and quality. Finally, there should be a clear means of measuring whether a project performs sustainably in relation to each indicator. This is true not only for environmental concerns but also for social and economic issues, such as human rights, food security, and workforce safety. Different systems may categorize "criteria" and "indicators" somewhat differently, but the point is the same. A good certification system provides an organized and objective way to track sustainability down to the field level across a range of recognized issues.
Biofuel projects that apply for certification must undergo third-party site audits to certify that they are performing well across all criteria and indicators. Facilities and feedstock operations that pass rigorous inspection are then certified as sustainable. Purchasers can simply look for certified fuels rather than performing these tasks themselves.
Key Attributes of a Credible Certification System
Some certification systems provide a high level of resolution and certainty, while others are less stringent, transparent, or thoroughly enforced. Therefore, it is critical to identify key attributes to ensure that the certification system performs well in the field. For instance, international accreditation of auditors as well as assurance by a well-recognized and international body such as ISEAL will ensure that the system is rigorously designed and implemented. Similarly, the system should be life-cycle-based, evaluating a wide variety of sustainability measurements across feedstock production, fuel production, and end use stages.
The system's format and development process should be consistent with international norms. This includes both the standards-setting process and evaluative methodologies. The standards-development process should also be transparent. It should include stakeholder engagement and public comment mechanisms. Approved summaries, standards, and protocols should be made publicly available. Documentation should include all relevant issues, data sources, assumptions, and references and present them in an accessible manner.
The standards-development process must be participatory, consensus driven, and deeply inclusive of all relevant stakeholders. The resulting system should be balanced, reflect general consensus, and include economic, social, and environmental factors. The requirements should identify principles, criteria, indicators, and clear evaluation benchmarks or outputs. These should all be objective, science-based, and traceable. Compliance with the standard as well as all relevant laws should be demonstrable through product chain of custody and verifiable by independent third parties.
Finally, the system should be relevant. It should clearly communicate what is evaluated and directly serve the decision-making needs of the intended audience. In short, the standard should provide credible verification and clearly add value in serving the user's supply chain risk needs.
See the fact sheet for high-level results and the full report for a more detailed analysis with all evaluation criteria and indicators broken out.
June 26, 2015
In July of 2014, NRDC published Biofuel Sustainability Performance Guidelines. This report evaluated several major certification systems that are designed to ensure that biomass feedstocks for fuel and power are cultivated, harvested, and converted sustainably. While certification systems can help avoid enormous unintended consequences, they must be rigorous and comprehensive or they risk masking rather than revealing environmental harms.
For these reasons, NRDC's report undertook an extensive evaluation of these systems. The report examined the environmental issues covered by the different systems and the protocols they had in place to ensure reliable environmental performance. So for instance, in addition to testing whether the systems covered biodiversity impacts, the report also measured whether they were accredited by an internationally recognized accreditor.
While our report represents a snapshot of the 2014 landscape, it does not and cannot capture how some or all of these systems may have evolved throughout the last year. Until NRDC undertakes a new analysis that reevaluates all benchmarked systems, readers should continue to evaluate systems against the pillars, criteria, and indicators used in this report. These remain critical factors in biofuel and bioenergy sustainability and will be the most accurate way to test any given system's current level of protectiveness.
Biofuels and bioenergy provide an opportunity to lower carbon dioxide emissions and move away from fossil energy. However, they must be sourced and created sustainably or they will do more harm than good. Sustainability certification systems can help achieve this outcome. This evolving and complex field must be periodically reassessed as all systems learn and improve. Doing so will help optimize environmental results and allow us to move away from fossil energy in a sustainable manner.
last revised 7/6/2015