Biofuels and Sustainability Issues


Biofuels offer benefits in terms of GHG reduction and fossil fuel replacement. However, concerns about the overall sustainability of biofuels have been raised in terms of competition with food production, water use and other resource to produce biomass and in terms of the release of stored carbon and impacts on biodiversity if land is cleared to grow energy crops.

This section of the website presents the views of various organizations and research activities (see Reports) in regard to the following sustainability issues of biofuels:

See below also for:

European Policy and Standards for sustainable biomass and biofuels production

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 an amendment to the Renewable Energy Directive in September 2015 (2015/1513) these deadlines were brought forward to 60 % GHG saving for installation after 25 October 2015, and 50 % for existing installation after 1 January 2018.

Further sustainability criteria set in the directive are

  • No biofuels feedstock from carbon rich or biodiverse land
  • Food crop based biofuels are limited to a 7 % share in the transport sector
  • Bench mark for the share in the transport sector of biofuels based on non-food crops of 0.5%
  • Member States are obliged to guarantee compliance with these criteria (GHG, origin of feedstock)
  • EC has to report on compliance with environmental and social sustainability criteria of major biofuel exporting countries.

The 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).

Read more on the Renewable Energy Directive and the EU legislation on biofuels

Certification and systems for verifying the origin 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.

Read more on Certification

Other projects and initiatives 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) published a report on sustainability indicators for bioenergy. GBEP brings together public, private and civil society stakeholders in a joint commitment to promote bioenergy for sustainable development.

PDF 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 (see below). 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 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 (1.3 Mb PDF) made by Dina Bacovsky, Bioenergy 2020+ at EBTP SPM4 on 15 September 2011

BioGrace held a series of public workshops on biofuels GHG calculations focusing on all Member States. The workshops were 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) aimed 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.

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 relating 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 problems 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 natural ecosystem by monocultures, whether annual fields of rapeseed, sugar beet 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.

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.

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 updated April 2016)

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.

Sustainability links

Better Sugarcane Initiative

Bureau Veritas

California Low Carbon Fuel Standards Sustainability Work Group

Council on Sustainable Biomass Production

Envrionmental Protection Agency

Ethical Sugar

EU sustainability criteria for the use of biofuels (used in transport) and bioliquids (used for electricity and heating)

Voluntary schemes verifying compliance with the EU's biofuels sustainability criteria

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 Bioenergy Trade

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)