By Ben Block
Biofuels offer the promise of a low-carbon fuel that could power vehicles and stimulate the world's rural economies.
Yet biofuels are also among the most vilified of environmental technologies. Ethanol refineries are not always clean. The labor on biofuel farms is not always fair. The diversion of feedstocks from food to fuel may be driving up global commodity prices. And the forests, fields, and peat bogs cleared to make room for biofuel crops may release more carbon into the atmosphere than they would save from vehicles not burning fossil fuels.
To address these issues, the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB) has gathered environmentalists, industry leaders, and university researchers to develop the first international standard for biofuel production.
In its initial draft, released earlier this month, the roundtable targeted the many sustainability problems associated with growing crops for liquid fuel production. Proponents praise the standards as an attempt to improve biofuel production even though the impact of the fuels is not fully known. Others argue that the standards will encourage the consumption of a fuel source destined to cause harm.
Transitions to Sustainability
The roundtable is the first large-scale effort to create a global standard for biofuels, although similar efforts for specific fuel feedstocks - including palm oil, soybeans, and sugar cane - are already under way. The task is by no means simple-issues vary by crop, climate, and geopolitics. Still, Charlotte Opal, the roundtable's coordinator, is optimistic that the standards can be a benchmark for worldwide biofuels production. "There are good biofuels and bad biofuels out there," she said. "We want to distinguish the good from the bad."
The standards require biofuel producers to consider the entire life cycle of their crops, including plans for water management and the preservation of "high conservation value" land through the establishment of buffer zones. Soil health would be "maintained or enhanced" and air pollution "minimized." Greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels production must be reduced over time, according to the guidelines.
The standards also include social provisions. Land must not be "legitimately contested" by local communities such as indigenous groups. If land rights are transferred, "local people shall be fairly and equitably compensated." Slave labor and child labor are banned. Some form of unionization must be allowed.
Some of these standards are aspirational. For instance, they recommend a business plan to ensure economic sustainability.
The biggest challenge to biofuels sustainability is ensuring that high-value land is preserved - either because it stores large amounts of carbon (as does forestland) or because it is well suited for human food production. If biofuels production pushes farmers or cattle grazers off their traditional lands and into newly cleared forests, for instance, are the fuels contributing to unsustainable behavior? Widespread forest clearing related to biofuels production has been reported in several regions, including Southeast Asia and South America.
The standards emphasize the use of marginal, degraded, or previously cleared land for growing biofuels. But the roundtable concedes that no simple methodology exists to prevent the unsustainable actions of other landowners affected indirectly by the fuels' expansion. "Indirect land use change is not in the control of the producer. How do you deal with that? It's a big, big philosophical hole," said Barbara Bramble, a senior international affairs advisor at the National Wildlife Federation and a member of the roundtable's steering board.
Currently, ethanol from "state-of-the-art" sugarcane production in Brazil may be the only biofuel capable of passing the standard's strict sustainability requirements using current production methods, Bramble said. Yet labor conditions akin to slavery and ecologically damaging monoculture practices [PDF] still trouble many of the nation's sugarcane farms, rendering this production less-than-perfect.
Setting such a high standard that covers so many areas of biofuel production may prevent any meaningful advances, said Henry Lee, the director of Harvard University's environment and natural resources program. "Certification standards could significantly enhance biofuels development or seriously retard it," Lee said. "The main concern is people try to deal with all problems-land, air, environment, child labor-with a biofuels requirement, and people are not going to do that."
Tad Patzek, a petroleum engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said that no biofuels production could be considered sustainable if done on a large scale for more than one year. The large amounts of fertilizer inputs would inevitably tarnish the quality of the soil and surrounding waterways, he said.
"Essentially, you have a sea of plants, monocultures for tens of kilometers. In what sense can that ever be sustainable?" said Patzek, who suggested that the standards may only encourage the expansion of destructive biofuels. "I am extremely wary of well-meaning people who like to feel good about themselves, contributing in a terrible way to the destruction of our planet."
A Sea of Standards
As concerns about biofuels grow, a system that differentiates sustainable biofuels production is in strong demand from consumers and suppliers alike. "The good news is that you're starting to see...people all over the world starting to talk about these issues," said David McLaughlin, the World Wildlife Fund's managing director of agriculture. "People are much more amenable to following these standards and adopting them."
Several European countries are also developing sustainability criteria, as part of the European Union's mandate to replace 10 percent of gasoline or diesel with biofuels by 2020. The Texas-based Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance released draft standards for U.S. biofuels production last week. One difference among the standards is the language for genetically modified biofuel crops - the roundtable allows biotechnology that does not impair the environment, while the alliance discourages it.
Some leaders in the developing world already oppose the proposed international standards due to concerns that the guidelines would serve as trade barriers. "They see it as a very typical developed-country attempt to keep developing countries from profiting off a commodity," said Lee, who heard this criticism often during a biofuels workshop in May organized by Harvard and the Italian government.
Yet environmental standards in other areas, such as those developed by the Forest Stewardship Council for wood products, the Marine Stewardship Council for seafood, and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements for organic produce, have already saturated developing-country markets, so a new standard for biofuels may be no different. "It's been on their landscape for the past 15 years," McLaughlin said. "It's nothing new to them."
The roundtable has no plans to establish a rigorous certification system at this time due to implementation costs and the difficulty of proving the source of blended biofuels. Instead, suppliers can voluntarily strive to follow the standards until a more stringent system is in place.
Even if the standards are followed, the ability for current biofuels technology to be truly sustainable remains to be seen. "We think it's an achievable standard," Opal said. "But it will take a lot of time to prove it and to achieve accountability."
The Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels will be accepting comments on its standards through February 2009.
Photo: Several sugarcane producers in Brazil are expected to meet sustainability standards, yet soil degradation and labor rights remain a concern there. Photo credit: USDA