While the sustainability standards for biofuels as they are currently identified within the 2009 Renewable Energy Directive (RED I) address all biofuels, are there other criteria which are needed to specifically address advanced biofuels?In principle, sustainability criteria should apply to all fuels but it is important to ensure that they cover all relevant aspects and some aspects might be more relevant for advanced biofuels.
The Commission draft proposal for a revised Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) seeks to increase the sustainability of biofuels through increasing GHG reductions to 70% for new plants as of 2021 compared to fossil fuels, as well as allowing use of agreed international standards for issues such as water, soil and air. These elements apply to both conventional and advanced biofuels. Social issues are still considered to be a gap in both versions of the RED. Provided below are some additional considerations for sustainability criteria related to advanced biofuels.
For advanced biofuels produced from lignocellulosic material or other feedstocks that do not demand land or cause significant market distortion, land use related issues may decrease. However, wastes used for some advanced biofuel production could have other purposes and this should also be factored in into the sustainability assessment of advanced biofuels. Several EU-funded research projects looked at the sustainability of feedstocks produced in the EU and other locations, such as Biotrade2020+, Biomass Policies and, most recently, S2Biom.
These new/alternative feedstocks range from non-food crops such as miscanthus and short rotation coppice, agricultural and forestry residues to used vegetable oil and the use of algae. The application of sustainability criteria is particularly important for those feedstocks that use land, even if it is marginal land. Additional sustainability criteria must also be considered for residues from agriculture or forestry, particularly when evaluating their potential, as seen with Biotrade2020+ and S2Biom. Unconstrained residue removal could lead to negative impacts (agriculture residues for example return valuable nutrients to the soil and prevent erosion) but if the extraction of residues is kept within sustainable boundaries these risks can largely be managed. Finally, it is important to keep in mind that for lignocellulosic biomass many impacts are highly location-specific and would need to be assessed at project level rather than through standardised top down criteria.
Advanced technologies, especially those stimulated by the Horizon2020 programme, look not only at the use of residues and waste but also at the technologies to transform them within the bioeconomy. Several of the advanced biofuels production techniques or pathways are still in the R&D, pilot or demonstration phase but they will also be expected to comply with sustainability criteria for feedstock as well as GHG emissions reductions. In the biorefinery model, fuels are a co-product, i.e. part of a wider range of different value products including pharmaceuticals and high value molecules.
The current RED demands 60% GHG emissions reductions for new installations brought online after 25 October 2015, and 50% for existing installations while crop-based biofuels are limited to a 7% share of the transport sector. The Commission’s draft proposal for a revised RED Directive (RED II) seeks to increase the sustainability of biofuels through increasing the GHG reduction to 70% for new plants as of 2021 compared to fossil fuels as well as allowing use of agreed international standards for issues such as water, soil and air.
The GBEP Sustainability Indicators for Bioenergy provides a comprehensive framework that is also applicable to advanced biofuels, and fully in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. While aimed at governments more so than suppliers, these indicators could be utilised to strengthen sustainability policy.
Another possibility is using an international standard such as the ISO 13065:2015 on sustainability criteria for bioenergy. Nevertheless, the ISO bioenergy standard is limited by the technologies specified and the lack of consideration of ILUC and does not specify assessment approaches.
Regarding social criteria, it is included in several standards and frameworks developed with conventional biofuels in mind (see for instance RSB, ISCC, Bonsucro) and there should be no reason why some of these criteria could not be applied to advanced biofuels. This is especially the case for those feedstocks that require land (e.g. not agricultural residues but dedicated crops) because although crops such as miscanthus are not used for food production, they still need to be produced on land, even if it is marginal land.
Finally, the governance of sustainability schemes is rarely discussed and should be considered for the monitoring of production, not just for the compliance with the standards, which are normally voluntary. New approaches have been considered in terms of governance, for instance, moving from certification schemes at farm, plantation or mill level to regional governance (or landscape) where the verification unit is a specific geographical area and uses multi-stakeholder involvement. Some initiatives have started to apply these regional approaches such as the RSPO, Bonsucro and RTRS and it may be plausible that more examples will emerge similar to these alternative governance schemes.
References:Allen B, Baldock D, Nanni S, Bowyer C. 2016. Sustainability criteria for biofuels made from land and non-land based feedstocks. Report for the European Climate Foundation. Institute for European Environmental Policy (IIEEP) London.
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