Biofuels and Sustainability Issues


This section of the website presents the views of various organizations and research activities (see Reports) concerning the widespread use of land, water and other resource to produce biomass to be used for the production of liquid transport fuel. Although biomass is a renewable energy source, the development of biofuels raises important issues of

and a need for measures to be put in place to ensure sustainability, such as:

In the longer term, it has been suggested that some bioenergy/biofuels production could be combined with carbon dioxide capture and storage (Bio-CCS).

See below for:

GHG reduction and Sustainable Production of Biofuels

The development of sustainable liquid transport fuels, which can replace finite fossil fuels, is essential to guarantee the future security of energy supply in Europe. In common with all industrial processes, production of biofuels requires energy inputs and has an environmental impact. However, first generation biofuels (bioethanol and biodiesel) still offer benefits in terms of GHG reduction and fossil fuel replacement. When measuring overall sustainability of biofuels, other factors need to be taken into account, such as competition with food production, and release of stored carbon and impacts on biodiversity if land is cleared to grow energy crops. Such issues are being addressed by EC certification schemes, projects such as BioGrace, and the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, among others, as well as development of advanced (2G) biofuels technology and new bioenergy crops that grow on land less suited to food production.

Fuels 2010 Wheel-to-Wheel analysis

© Copyright CPL Press
Well-to-wheel greenhouse gas emissions (in CO2-equivalents/km) versus total energy use for running a mid-size car over a distance of 100 km - View at larger size >>

Sustainable Advanced Biofuels

Second generation biofuels produced from lignocellulosic materials (e.g, straw, energy crops and forestry residues), could enable far greater reductions in GHG, and innovative fuels created from these feedstocks will count double towards the biofuels target of 10%.

Clearly, the type, location and environmental sensitivity of land used for cultivating biofuel feedstocks is critical, if expansion of biofuel production is to be sustainable and socially acceptable.

The EC Climate Change initiative stipulated that in order to meet sustainability criteria "old forest with no or limited human intervention cannot be used for biofuels cultivation, nor can ’highly biodiverse grasslands’, or lands with a ’high carbon stock’ like wetlands or ’pristine peatlands’"

The Directive on Renewable Energy (December 2008) states further that the EC has to report on compliance with environmental and social sustainability criteria of major biofuel exporting countries. And a bonus of 29g CO2/MJ will be applied for biofuels derived from degraded/contaminated land.

Enforcement of these conditions requires the establishment of a transparent and rigorous certification system, based upon global standards that objectively quantify various sustainability criteria for such land types. In addition, sustainability standards should cover both direct and indirect impacts on the environment (water, biodiversity, etc) and socio-economic issues (food pricing, land availability, quality of life and social stability).



Sustainability links

Better Sugarcane Initiative

Brazilian Biofuels - Social Fuel Seal

Bureau Veritas

California Low Carbon Fuel Standards Sustainability Work Group

Council on Sustainable Biomass Production

Envrionmental Protection Agency

Ethical Sugar

European Commission scheme for certifying sustainable biofuels

FACCEJPI - Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change

GAVE - Climate Neutral Gaseous and Liquid Energy Carriers (Netherlands)

Global Bioenergy Partnership

IDB Biofuels Sustainability Scorecard

IEA Taskforce 40 Fair Biotrade

ILUC Project

Inter-American Development Bank Biofuels Sustainability Scorecard

Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership LowCVP (UK)

Natural Resources Defense Council

Rainforest Alliance

Register of Biofuels Origination (RBO)

Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (UK)

Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB)

Roundtable on Suatainable Palm Oil

Roundtable on Responsible Soy Association

Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group SAFUG

Sustainable Food Laboratory - Responsible Commmodities Initiative (RCI) on Biofuels

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

UNICA - Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association
UNICA sustainable sugar cane initiative

University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (CPSL)


European Policy and Standards for sustainable biomass and biofuels production

Proposals to amend the Renewable Energy Directive

In the EU, biofuels sustainability is stipulated in the Renewable Energy Directive, which originally stated that use of biofuels must result in an overall GHG saving of 35%, in order to qualify towards the 10% biofuels target in the EU27 by 2020. This was set to rise to 50% from 2017 for existing production, and 60% for new installations from 2017. For plants already operating in January 2008, the new GHG requirement was set to start in April 2013.

In October 2012 the EC published a proposal to minimise the climate impact of biofuels, by amending the current legislation on biofuels through the Renewable Energy and the Fuel Quality Directives. In particular, the proposals suggest:

  • To increase the minimum greenhouse gas saving threshold for new installations to 60% in order to improve the efficiency of biofuel production processes as well as discouraging further investments in installations with low greenhouse gas performance.
  • To include indirect land use change (ILUC) factors in the reporting by fuel suppliers and Member States of greenhouse gas savings of biofuels and bioliquids;
  • To limit the amount of food crop-based biofuels and bioliquids that can be counted towards the EU's 10% target for renewable energy in the transport sector by 2020, to the current consumption level, 5% up to 2020, while keeping the overall renewable energy and carbon intensity reduction targets;
  • To provide market incentives for biofuels with no or low indirect land use change emissions, and in particular the 2nd and 3rd generation biofuels produced from feedstock that do not create an additional demand for land, including algae, straw, and various types of waste, as they will contribute more towards the 10% renewable energy in transport target of the Renewable Energy Directive.

The European Parliament adopted its first reading position on 11 September 2013. In December 2013, the Energy Council examined a presidency compromise text of this
draft directive. However, there were still some outstanding issues. Therefore, the Council's
preparatory bodies continued to work further on the proposal, with a view to facilitating
political agreement, which was reached in June 2014.

See: Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Directive 98/70/EC relating to the quality of petrol and diesel fuels and amending Directive 2009/28/EC on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources (first reading) - Political agreement

See also: Correction to the above document (this affects a single sentence).

This revises the way that Member States are allowed to meet the EU 10% targets for Renewables in Transport. Biofuels from food crops would be limited to 7%. A 'voluntary' target of 0.5% is indicated for advanced biofuels produced from non-food feedstocks, with some waste feedstocks counting double. In addition, incentives are included for production of electricity from biomass. The key points from the political agreement are outline on the legislation page of this website.

CEN/TC 383 Sustainably produced biomass for energy applications (prEN 16214)

A new standard (prEN 16214), has been developed by CEN/TC 383 on Sustainably produced biomass for energy applications. The standard, in four parts (Terminology; Conformity assessment; Biodiversity & environmental aspects; and Calculation methods) was made available in the autumn of 2012.

CEN Technical Committee (TC) 383 was created in 2008 in order to work on European Standards (prEN 16214) dealing with sustainability principles, criteria and indicators including their verification and auditing schemes for biomass for energy applications. This includes green house gas emission and fossil fuel balances, biodiversity, environmental, economic and social aspects and indirect effects within each of the aspects.

The Renewable Energy Directive (2009/28) sets the framework for the work of TC 383. Sustainability criteria related to the quality of petrol and diesel fuels were also requested in the Fuel Quality Directive (98/70/EC). In May 2009, the European Commission (EC) requested CEN/TC 383 through a letter to initiate work on standards. CEN is finalising a European Standard in 4 parts which is going to be available in autumn 2012. The EC has indicated its willingness to acknowledge them at this stage as a way of supporting compliance of biofuels and bioliquids with the Renewable Energy Directive.

The European Standard EN 16214 has been developed by CEN/TC 383 as the following:

  • prEN 16214-1 Sustainably produced biomass for energy applications - Principles, criteria, indicators and verifiers for biofuels and bioliquids - Part 1: Terminology
  • prEN 16214-2 Sustainably produced biomass for energy applications - Principles, criteria, indicators and verifiers for biofuels and bioliquids - Part 2: Conformity assessment including chain of custody and mass balance
  • prEN 16214-3 Sustainably produced biomass for energy applications - Principles, criteria, indicators and verifiers for biofuels and bioliquids - Part 3: Biodiversity and environmental aspects related to nature protection purposes
  • prEN 16214-4 Sustainably produced biomass for energy applications - Principles, criteria, indicators and verifiers for biofuels and bioliquids - Part 4: Calculation methods of the greenhouse gas emission balance using a life cycle analysis

Certification and systems for verifying the origion of sustainable biofuels

As biofuels gain market share and international trading of biomass, raw materials and biofuels expands, the need to ensure socio-economic sustainability along the whole supply chain becomes more pressing. This includes aspects such as land use, agricultural practices, competition with food, energy efficiency and GHG emissions, life cycle analysis (LCA), etc.

A strategy to achieve sustainability includes the need for certification systems. Developing certification procedures for biomass feedstock to be used in biofuel production requires identification and assessment of existing systems followed by measures taken to improve them. Certification procedures need to be applicable at both global and local level and relate both to small farmers or foresters as well as large conglomerates.

Global-Bio-Pact, co-funded under FP7, aimed to develop and harmonize global sustainability certification systems for biomass production, conversion systems and trade in order to prevent negative socio-economic impacts.

EC certification of sustainable biofuels

On 10 June 2010, the EC announced its scheme for certifying sustainable biofuels, part of a set of guidelines explaining how the Renewable Energy Directive, coming into effect in December 2010, should be implemented.

After a detailed assessment made by the Commission and various improvements the following schemes were recognised in July 2011:

ISCC (German (government financed) scheme covering all types of biofuels)

Bonsucro EU (Roundtable initiative for sugarcane based biofuels, focus on Brazil)

RTRS EU RED (Roundtable initiative for soy based biofuels, focus on Argentina and Brazil)

RSB EU RED (Roundtable initiative covering all types of biofuels)

2BSvs (French industry scheme covering all types of biofuels)

RSBA (Industry scheme for Abengoa covering their supply chain)

Greenergy (Industry scheme for Greenergy covering sugar cane ethanol from Brazil)

The Commission is currently discussing with other voluntary schemes how these can also improve their standard in order to meet the sustainability requirements for biofuels.

Register of Biofuels Origination (RBO) Consortium

The aim of the Register of Biofuels Origination (RBO) Consortium is to provide a 'simple and solid' international system to act as a reference tool for EU Member States authorities and EC Commission to verify the genuine origin of biofuels substances to be considered as advanced biofuels and claimed for extra incentives and/or for double counting, without interfering with the national definitions and listings of these products (different definitions and lists are set in each EU Member State).

RBO suggets that an imbalance between incentives and verification tools increases the probability of incorrect trading practices. This is facilitated by two current realities: firstly, final biofuel products often have the same chemical composition, regardless of whether they originate from waste, traditional crops or other sources; secondly, the absence of a common European scheme for registering physical biofuels under a single system generates the possibility for semi-fraudulent untrustworthy multiple claims of the same physical biofuels substances under two or more national schemes. [Source: RBO Consortium Launch Meeting communication, January 2013].

Neste Oil's sustainability verification system

Neste Oil's sustainability verification system was approved by the European Commission in January 2014, who confirmed that it complies with the standards set for reliability, transparency, and independent third-party auditing. Verifications made under the system are always carried out by an impartial, external expert. Existing certificates recognized by the Commission can be used as part of the verification process. The new verification system covers all diesel fuel produced from renewable feedstocks, in accordance with the EU's Renewable Energy Directive.

The NABISY - Sustainable biomass system in Germany

The German NABISY sustainable biomass system illustrates how a "proof of sustainability" database can be implemented to 'track' trade in (and movements of) sustainable biomass/biofuels produced by EU Member States as well as biofuels imported through EU ports and subsequently traded within the EU.

In Germany, pursuant to the provisions laid down in the Biomass-electricity sustainability ordinance (BioST-NachV) and the Biofuel sustainability ordinance (Biokraft-NachV), in the field of biofuels proofs of sustainability or partial proofs of sustainability must be submitted to the customs office in order to be counted against the biofuel quota. The same applies to the claiming of tax relief according to the Energy Tax Act (Energiesteuergesetz (EnergieStG). In the field of bioelectricity, operators of an installation are only entitled to claim remuneration pursuant to the Renewable Energy Sources Act (Erneuerbare-Energien-Gesetz (EEG)) from the network operator, if they submit proofs of sustainability or partial proofs of sustainability.

NABISY facilitates the application of "mass balancing" principles. This ensures that the quantity of sustainable biomass extracted from a mixture [of biomass from various sources] does not exceed the amount of sustainable biomass that has previously been added to the mixture. The type, quantity and other important attributes of sustainable biomass are regulary documented in the mass balance system.

For a more detailed explanation please refer to: Information Leaflet: Sustainable Biomass Production

Trace your Claim (TYC) Database

The Trace your Claim database was developed to ensure that biomass, waste and residue based material which complies with the specific requirements of the Renewable Energy Directive and the Fuel Quality Directive is eligible for ‘double counting’. The database covers the entire supply chain from the point of waste or residue origination via further processing and conversion towards trade and final use by quota obligated parties. Interfaces will be provided to other public databases as well as databases operated by national authorities (e.g. Nabisy) and up- and download functions in order to ease data handling.

The Trace your Claim database can guarantee the origin, product code and the exact quantities of ‘double counting’ material marketed between any of the registered user such as collectors, biodiesel plants and traders. For this purpose users can upload important documents such as waste transfer notes, delivery notes and any other document required for proving compliance with relevant national ordinances. Especially users which from January 1, 2013 will have to comply with the very strict new German legislation (BimschV) will be enabled to document identity preservation [Source:Trace your Claim website].

Other projects and initatives to improve the sustainability of biofuels

UFOP Video on biofuels sustainability and certification in Germany

GBEP sustainability indicators for biofuels

In May 2011, the Global Bio-Energy Partnership (GBEP) agreed a list of sustainability indicators for bioenergy. GBEP brings together public, private and civil society stakeholders in a joint commitment to promote bioenergy for sustainable development.

icon View GBEP sustainability indicators briefing note

View presentations from GBEP Events in 2011 covering GHG LCA, sustainable bioenergy for sustainable development and related topics.

In Europe, the sustainability of biofuels is the focus of the EC Joint Research Centre (JRC) project Quality and Performance of Biofuels (BioF) and projects such as BioGrace. Sustainable biofuels in the EU are also subject to a certification scheme. More widely, the FACCEJPI - Joint Programming Initiative on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change aims to bring together national research in the EU covering the impact of climate change on crop production, forestry and aquaculture and vice versa. For example, methane produced by agricultural activities may influence man-made climate change, while at the same time wetter weather due to increased sea temperatures may affect crop harvests. Hence ongoing research is required to optimise agricultural (and forestry) land use for food, feed or bioproducts in Europe, and to monitor and model the impact these have on the environment and food supplies.

BioGrace - Harmonisation of GHG calculations in the EU

pdf icon View Presentation on BioGrace made by Dina Bacovsky, Bioenergy 2020+ at EBTP SPM4 on 15-09-11 (1.3 Mb PDF)

BioGrace will be holding a series of public workshops on biofuels GHG calculations focusing on all Member States. The workshops will be held between February and June 2011 in Utrecht, Netherlands, Heidelberg, Germany, Paris, France, Athens, Greece, Stockholm, Sweden amd Madrid, Spain.

The EU funded project BioGrace (Contract No: IEE/09/736/SI2.558249) aims to harmonise calculations of biofuel greenhouse gas emissions and thus supports the implementation of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED, 2009/28/EC)) and Fuel Quality Directive (FQD, 2009/30EC) into national laws. More information on BioGrace

IDB Biofuels Sustainability Scorecard

The Sustainable Energy and Climate Change Initiative (SECCI) and the Structured and Corporate Finance Department (SCF) of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) have created the IDB Biofuels Sustainability Scorecard based on the sustainability criteria of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB). The primary objective of the Scorecard is to encourage higher levels of sustainability in biofuels projects by providing a tool to think through the range of complex issues associated with biofuels.

BIOSEA Project, Italy

In Italy, the BIOSEA project (optimization of biomass energy for economic and environmental sustainability) aims to optimise supply chains by making use of existing agricultural research and genetic engineering and LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) for a proper comparison between options and for the identification and elimination of critical points realting to economic sustainability and environmental processes.

Social Aspects of Biofuels Development

In September 2009, the Potsdam Institute, Germany, launched a 3-year project Biofuel as Social Fuel, which is analysing the societal impact of biofuel development, for example, the potential of technological innovation to enhance 'social progress'.

Biofuel Sustainability in the US

As in Europe, sustainability of biofuels is becoming increasingly important in the United States, and is addressed by the EPA and groups such as California Low Carbon Fuel Standards Sustainability Work Group.

Environmental impact

Some intensive modern farm methods used for food production have a range of negative effects on the environment, such as soil erosion, water shortage, pollution from pesticides and probems with over use of fertilizers (including eutrophication). Eutrophication, the decrease in the biodiversity of an ecosystem as the result of release of chemical nutrients (typically compounds containing nitrogen or phosphorous),  is only one threat to biodiversity, which may also be impacted by the replacement of a nutural ecosystem by monocultures, whether annual fields of rapeseed, sugarbeet or cereals, or large areas of coppice or short rotation forest.

For example, palm oil is one of the cheapest sources of vegetable oil and is used widely in the food and cosmetics industry, and more recently as a feedstock for first generation biofuels. The clearing of biodiverse rainforest for expansion of palm plantations has been the subject of a number of protests and campaigns by conservation groups. Conservation scientitsts have expressed particular concerns over the release of stored carbon and destruction of habitat for endangered species [Source: Biofuel Plantations on Forested Lands: Double Jeopardy for Biodiversity and Climate and Conservation Biology].

The Convention on Biological Diversity suggests that the use of payment mechanisms to protect biodiversity (e.g. REDD Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) may often be a better environmental and economic option than clearing biodiverse land to plant energy crops.

Competition for water resources is aother increasingly significant issue for biomass production.

Read more on Environmental impact.

Land availability

The amount of biomass required to replace a significant proportion of the fossil fuel used in transport runs into millions of tonnes. Hence, a crucial question is that of biomass yield. Higher yields obviously enable a similar amount of biofuel to be replaced using less land. However, land use efficiency may also be improved by selecting an overall production chain that can use a high yielding biomass crop. For instance most oils seed crops only produce a few tonnes per hectare per annum, sugar and starch crops may generate 5 to 10 tonnes, while significantly greater yields come from woody plants – or from conventional crops such as cereals if the straw can be used.

Greater utilisation of such materials depends on the development of advanced biofuels. Even if these methods come to market, land availability still sets limits to what may be produced.

Suggestions have been made for the movement of biomass or biomass derived fuels from the more productive regions to the more industrialised countries. Should this type of movement be encouraged?

Find out more about the constraints of land use on production of liquid biofuels.

Food versus fuel

The global population continues to grow, in places at an alarming rate, and will need to be fed and will expect to live an improved life style, consuming more energy. This raises questions of ‘Food versus Fuel'; how much land and other resources are available, how should they be used and what are the priorities?

The debate on Food versus Fuel has had a major impact on biofuels policy and gained media coverageA number of reports covering this issue are available in the EBTP reports database and the Food vs. Fuel page.



Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC)

It has been suggested that growing energy crops on agricultural land may displace existing food-crop production, causing land use change in another location. This Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) might occur in a neighbouring area or even in another country hundreds of miles away, where an area of high biodiversity (and high levels of "stored carbon") might be cleared to make more land available for growing food crops.

In the US, this concept was the subject of a paper by Timothy Searchinger et al Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Change published in Science in February 2008 [Vol. 319 no. 5867 pp. 1238-1240]. It has been suggested that increased use of rape seed oil for biodiesel production in Europe could reduce the amount available for the food industry, leading in turn to increased demands for imports of palm oil (potentially increasing deforestation in producer countries).

Since 2008, there has been much debate about the assumptions made and methods used to establish the impact of Indirect Land Use Change. There is a concensus among scientists that land use change is very complex and affected by a wide range of factors, not only biofuels. Nonetheless, public concerns have led to the amendment of EC biofuels policies and the role of biofuels in sustainable transport strategy.

Read more on iLUC...

Impact of fertilisers and biofuel policies on the Global Agricultural Supply Chain

In November 2014, OECD published a report Fertiliser and Biofuel Policies in the Global Agricultural Supply Chain: Implications for Agricultural Markets and Farm Incomes.

This report analyses policies along the agricultural supply chain, in particular support measures for fertilisers and for biofuels. It uses the OECD Fertiliser and Biofuel Support Policies Database that covers polices in 48 countries (including the EU and its Members) and assesses the market effects of these policies with a computable general equilibrium model, MAGNET. This report finds that biofuel support policies generate additional demand for feedstock commodities and, therefore, higher incomes for crop farmers in subsidising and non-subsidising countries. In contrast, these policies increase costs to downstream industries, including livestock farmers, and to consumers. Fertiliser support policies reduce crop production costs and hence increase yields, production and incomes for crop farmers in subsidising countries. However, they lower crop farm incomes abroad, while livestock farmers in both country groups face lower feed costs and, in consequence, lower livestock prices.


Archive Reports

Recent reports on sustainability and biofuels are regularly added to the EBTP reports database, reflecting a range of views on the issue. Links to some notable archive reports are listed below.

Renewable Fuels Agency Review of the Indirect Effects of Biofuels

On 21 February 2008, the UK Secretary of State for Transport Ruth Kelly invited the Renewable Fuels Agency to undertake a Review of the Indirect Effects of Biofuels. This was done in the light of new evidence suggesting that an increasing demand for biofuels might indirectly cause carbon emissions because of land use change, and concerns that demand for biofuels may be driving food insecurity by causing food commodity price increases.

icon Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels: Global Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Biofuels Production Version Zero

(8.9 Mb - link added December 2008)

In June 2007, the Steering Board of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB) published draft principles for sustainable biofuels production, as the basis for a global stakeholder discussion around requirements for sustainable biofuels. A period of global consultation followed, and this document (Version Zero) presents the resulting draft standard – principles and criteria, along with key elements of the guidance for implementation.

Sustainability Standards for Bioenergy (1.5 Mb PDF) – Uwe R. Fritsche, Katja Hünecke, Andreas Hermann, Falk Schulze and Kirsten Wiegmann with contributions from Michel Adolphe, Öko-Institut e.V., Darmstadt. Published by WWF Germany, Frankfurt am Main, November 2006.

Please note that the material in this report is copyright of WWF Germany, Frankfurt am Main and that any reproduction in full or in part of this publication must mention the title and credit the copyright holder.