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Setting common standards for sustainable biofuels

Posted by suzanne at Jul 24, 2013 11:03 AM |

Any conversation about the sustainability of biofuels should include the tremendous and growing impacts resulting from the fossil fuels that they are seeking to supplant.

Setting common standards for sustainable biofuels

Ross Macfarlane, Sr. Advisor, Business Partnerships, and Audrey Wheeler, Sustainable Advanced Fuels intern

By Ross Macfarlane and Audrey Wheeler
Climate Solutions

With all we hear about “sustainability”, it can be hard to determine what the term really means. Certification labels try to inform consumers if the word “sustainable” has any legitimacy. T-shirts, tomatoes, office supplies—you name a product and it’s probably got a dozen competing certifications and seals boasting its stewardship efforts. In regards to biofuels, the need for certification is just as important to understand.

If we are growing what we use to fly, we have to get it right.
Biofuel production appropriately raises many questions on sustainability because of how their production, transportation, and consumption can influence the environment and communities.  Unless addressed, questions regarding food security, full life-cycle emissions and other factors, can undermine their viability as a superior substitute for fossil fuels. Without appropriate standards, biofuel production and transport can release more GHGs than will be avoided by their use. Land-use changes, such as converting grasslands or forests to grow crops for biofuels, can have far-reaching consequences that result in increasing carbon in the atmosphere.

Any conversation about the sustainability of biofuels, however, should include the tremendous and growing impacts resulting from the fossil fuels that they are seeking to supplant. Oil and gas production is one of the largest sources of global warming pollution, and also presents tremendous stresses on local environments and communities.  And this baseline is not static.  Increasingly, transportation fuels are coming from “extreme fossil” sources, such as tar sands, drilling in deep ocean or arctic environments, fracking, or from converting coal or gas to fuels.  These types of production can have significantly higher greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental and social impacts than “traditional” oil and gas production.

Depending on the feedstocks, technologies, and circumstances, biofuels can be produced “sustainably” – meaning they have a positive impact on climate emissions over their total life-cycle, limited competition with food, and acceptable impacts regarding other sustainability issues.  From the beginning, our work has focused identifying and supporting development of sustainable fuels. 

Biofuels Lifecycle


Working to get it right
In order to support development of biofuels with positive climate, environmental and other impacts, the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) created a certification standard for biofuel production, which Climate Solutions supports. In the Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest Report from 2011, we identified RSB as a “gold standard” for sustainability systems relating to the biofuels industry. The Natural Resources Defense Council recently chose RSB as the best certification for the aviation industry because, “it is global, covers all biofuel technologies and feedstocks, and is designed to benchmark to relevant national biofuel sustainability regulatory requirements”.

It is not only non-profits who support development and use of these standards. Leading international companies like Boeing, British Airways and KLM recognize that international sustainability standards are critical to providing them with supply chains that address these needs and ultimately, with the social license to fly.

One leading international producer of aviation biofuels, SkyNRG, has become the first company to work with RSB to achieve certification for every step of their renewable jet fuel supply chain. Theirs is the first biofuel in the world to be fully RSB certified from farm to consumer. It’s an exciting milestone.

But what exactly does this certification prove?

The RSB standard’s twelve requirements aim to respect local and international regulations, minimize environmental impacts, and aid social development.

A Summary of RSB Principles & Criteria for Sustainable Biofuel Production

  1.  Legality: Follow all applicable laws and regulations of the country in which the operation occurs and comply with relevant international laws and agreements.
  2. Planning, Monitoring and Continuous Improvement: Open, transparent, and consultative impact assessment and management process, and an economic viability analysis.
  3. Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Biofuel blends shall have on average 50% lower lifecycle GHG emissions relative to the fossil fuel baseline.
  4. Human and Labor Rights: Workers shall enjoy freedom of association, the right to organize and collectively bargain; no slave labor, child labor, or discrimination.
  5. Rural and Social Development: In regions of poverty, biofuel operations shall contribute to the social and economic development of local, rural and indigenous people and communities.
  6. Local Food Security: Ensure the human right to adequate food and improve food security in food insecure regions.
  7.  Conservation: Avoid negative impacts on biodiversity, ecosystems, and conservation values.
  8. Soil: Implement practices that seek to reverse soil degradation and maintain soil health.
  9.  Water: Maintain or enhance the quality and quantity of surface and ground water resources.
  10. Air: Air pollution shall be minimized along the supply chain; avoid burning residues, wastes, by-products, or land clearing.
  11. Use of Technology, Inputs, and Management of Waste: Maximize production efficiency and social and environmental performance, minimize risk of damages to the environment and people.
  12. Land Rights: Respect land rights and land use rights.

Each of these general criteria is supported by significant depth and detail. In creating this standard, RSB collaborated with hundreds of stakeholders internationally and from every part of the supply chain. RSB is a member of the ISEAL Alliance, which ensures labels are “effective, efficient, and credible”; other ISEAL Alliance members include the MSC (seafood) and FSC (forestry).

RSB has members in nearly 40 countries. Their focus on regionally sourced biomass leads to varied feedstocks: from sugar cane in Peru to used cooking oil in parts of the U.S.

RSB is expanding its scope. The official name of the organization was changed in April 2013 from Biofuels to Biomaterials. This broadens the reach to include other products made from biomass, such as bio-plastics, packaging, cosmetics, food additives, and bio-chemicals.

Most biofuel supply chains encompass co-products and biomaterials, which are often produced in the same facilities as biofuels.  So it makes sense for the RSB certification to look at the whole supply chain and to apply to any product coming out of the facility.

While many potential biofuels producers and consumers in the United States share the concern that sustainability along the supply chain is a top concern, this priority is not currently reflected in public policy. Strong public policy like a Low Carbon Fuel Standard or a Renewable Fuel Standard can drive demand for advanced biofuels and steer the supply chain to comply with sustainability standards. The Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials is striving toward a workable standard for the sustainable production and consumption of advanced biofuels. It is a powerful tool for insuring that new fuels benefit business and consumers while minimizing negative impact on people and the environment. 

Useful further reading:

Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials http://rsb.org/

 NRDC – Aviation Biofuel Sustainability Survey http://www.nrdc.org/energy/aviation-biofuel-sustainability-survey/files/aviation-biofuel-sustainability-survey-IB.pdf

National Wildlife Foundation – Sustainable Biofuels Certification System http://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines/Media-Center/News-by-Topic/Global-Warming/2011/03-22-11-Sustainable-Biofuels-Certification-System-Unveiled.aspx

CS Blog: New milestones move aviation biofuels forwardhttp://climatesolutions.org/cs-journal/new-milestones-move-aviation-biofuels-forward

The Full Monty: Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials  -> Standards http://rsb.org/pdfs/standards/11-03-08-RSB-PCs-Version-2.pdf

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