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Standard setting and its progress


 VersiĆ³n en Castellano: Estandares para agrocombustibles


Standard setting for the sustainable production, processing and trade of biofuels is regarded by many as an important process to guide - and to some extent limit - the fast moving biofuels rush, and prevent it from causing harm. It is a complex process with many sides and stakeholders to it. We selected contributions to standard setting that had major influence on its direction. With this, we intend to give you a brief overview of what is happening and seek to place biofuels standard setting in the broader context of sustainable resource use. Lacking in this overview are standards and criteria developments in Africa and especially Asia and Latin America where major biofuels producers/exporters are located. We would really welcome materials on important initiatives for sustainability standards and criteria from these regions!


The role of standard setting in ensuring sustainability

While standard setting can play a role in improving the sustainability of a commodity chain, also for biofuels, it should not be mistaken as a safeguard for any unsustainable and unfair practice or aspect associated with its production or trade. Other factors also determine whether biomass production for energy can and will be sustainable. Examples of other factors are (in)adequate land use planning, (in)appropriate policies on land(use) rights and (dis)respect of environmental laws - if appropriate laws exist. In many (potential) producer countries such accompanying policies and conditions, or people's possibilities to demand them, are still insufficient to ensure sustainability. In such a context, standard setting -so far often limited to farm-scale level-  is of limited use, or may even....as some claim...legitimize the bad practice of unbridled expansion of monocultures.


The scope and limitations of standard setting account not only for the case for biofuels - they apply to any crop. However, for biofuels, ensuring sustainability through standards and criteria is more complicated. Why? The feedstock consists of different crops that are also used for other purposes, for which the biofuel standards and criteria do not necessarily apply. Without e.g. adequate land use planning and enforcement of appropriate environmental law there is a gap between the theory of the standard and its outcome in reality. This 'gap' may cause the rise of unsustainable practice for other purposes in less economically valuable and often more vulnerable areas, outside the reach of standards, in order to make way for biofuel production. Schlegel&Kaphengst (2007) and Ecofys (2007) nicely describe this. Such and other consequences, generally referred to as indirect and 'macro-effects', are difficult to get a grip on and to properly integrate in criteria and standards, let alone to evaluate for certification. See the numerous  studies and forecasts under livelihood, landscape and biodiversity. Not surprisingly, macro-effects of bioenergy are much under debate and an important focus for the development of sustainability standards and criteria for biofuels. National and international NGO's often highlight the inadequacies of current standards to contain macro-effects and challenge governments and companies to ensure proper conditions. However, some are sceptical about the possibility of sustainable biofuels, doubting whether biofuels can ever be sustainable in all respects, as is reflected in some position statements, policy notes and advocacy letters. In any case there are conditions necessary for their functioning. The latest debates are about Indirect Land Use Changes (iLUC): can they be taken into account in certification and (other) policy measures related to biofuels use? A special section is dedicated to that question.


Developments at the global level

In the Global section documents can be found on the development of standards, criteria and certification systems in different countries and institutions around the world, both for biofuels and for other commodities of which the development of a sustainable production and trade chain is ahead. For developments in the EU, with a number of front runners among its members, we reserved a separate section. 


Two major players in the biofuel market who developed their own standards and criteria are Brazil and the USA. The American certification and audit provider Scientific Certification Systems produced an integrated Sustainable Agriculture Practice Standard For Food, Fiber and Biofuel (SCS, 2007). This draft voluntary standard is currently put on trial use and further developed by the multi-stakeholder Standards Committee who adopted the draft, under the rules of the National Standards Institute.


Apart from dominant countries or regions who develop standards for their markets and thereby influence the global market, there are several non-state actors who engaged in standard setting for sustainable bioenergy. The Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, RSB, is a multi-stakeholder platform that was started in 2007 to benefit from different initiatives for the development of sustainability criteria for biomass. The Roundtable resembles the multi-stakeholder platforms for soy, palm oil and suger cane (RTRS, RSPO, BSI) who started before them and from which they draw experience. The RSB is in the process of developing a standard with a set of criteria that should ensure the sustainable production and processing of biofuels. Their Version Zero (RSB-EPFL, 2008) of agreed principles and criteria is the basis for the development of a voluntary standard to which the participating stakeholders have committed themselves. Note: comments are received by the Roundtable until February 2009!  Based on these criteria the Inter-American Development Bank developed an online Sustainability Score Card (IDB, 2008) to help think through the range of complex issues associated with biofuels projects.


UNEP also cooperates with governments, industry and civil society 'in the process of defining sustainability criteria and recommendations for decision-makers in industry and governments that should help reduce the risks while the bioenergy market continues to develop'. UNEP participates in the RSB but prepared with some partners an overview of existing certification systems, initiatives, policies and crops involved (UNEP, 2007).


Development of standards and criteria in the EU

Germany, the UK, and The Netherlands (Cramer, 2006) had already come far with their own criteria and regulations when the European Commission started to develop criteria for regulation at the European level. The front runners then embarked on the next step in ensuring biomass sustainability: developing and experimenting with certification for sustainable biomass-for-energy. In the EU, in 2010, the voluntary (German)  ISCC standard (see also website)  is on the rise, while the Dutch have tried to promote their NTA 8080/8081 standard/certification system -which reflected the ideas of the well-known Cramer Criteria, including social criteria.


The European Commission started their thinking on biofuels to decrease the EU dependency on foreign oil. Gradually, the discussion became influenced by  the necessity of climate change abatement through reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in which fossil fuels play an important role. Replacing fossil fuels with biofuels does not necessarily result in a net GHG emission reduction. However, this shift in objectives explains to some extent the EC's initial determination to set quantitative standards, with few qualitative criteria. NGO's and scientists, in response to the Commission's consultation rounds, demanded that sustainability aspects be better taken into account, at first to ensure the prevention of biodiversity loss (see the section on position statements, policy notes and advocacy letters.) Considerations of potential influences on the natural environment started to be integrated in the development of qualitative and quantitative criteria for the biofuel market. For this, the EC drew from the work already done in some Member States (e.g. UK's RTFO reporting, 2007). While working on such environmental criteria, the world witnessed several important changes in commodity prices. Thus, awareness rose that the promotion of biofuels also has potential influence on the socio-economic environment, both locally and on a regional and even global level (see e.g. MNP (2008) who tested the sustainability of the criteria used). This was nourished by a growing number of studies (see also the section on livelihood, landscape and biodiversity). In the latest version of the Directive for Renewable Energy Sources (EC, 2008) an attempt has been made to also cover these aspects in a mandatory standard. The text that was adopted by the European Parliament on 17th of December 2008 can be viewed here.


In the EU section you will find the most important proposals for policy and criteria on renewable energy sources - including biofuels - from the European Council, as well as responses and technical contributions from the European Parliament, NGO's and scientists. 



Links to other web-based info sources:


Official websites of institutions engaged in standard setting for bioenergy

http://www.biofuelstp.eu/sustainability.html - explain how various standard systems in EU are related. 

European Commission DG Energy - development of EU policy and standards for renewable energy sources.

Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels - international multi-stakeholder platform aiming at consensus around criteria for sustainable biofuel production and processing.

http://www.iadb.org/scorecard/ -sustainability scorecard for biofuels of IADB, based on RSB, among others



Websites providing substantial information and/or a platform for discussion

Bioenergy wiki - information and discussion on the development of standards and criteria.

ISEAL - the International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labeling Alliance who would administer the certification developed by RSB, provides guidance materials for the development and application of standards. 




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