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Certifiably Sustainable: New Report Shows how Large Biofuel Users can Reduce Risk and Help the Environment

Brian Siu

Posted July 28, 2014 in Curbing Pollution, Moving Beyond Oil, Solving Global Warming, U.S. Law and Policy

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Large fuel consumers are increasingly considering biofuels as a replacement for conventional petroleum, as a way to reduce their environmental impact and as a long-term solution to oil dependence. These are valid pursuits, yet they can be undermined by purchasing unsustainable biofuels instead of sustainable ones.  Voluntary environmental certification systems can minimize these risks by helping fuel consumers easily identify the most environmentally sustainable biofuels but some are more protective than others, leaving consumers with guesswork. Moreover, these systems are broad and complex making it difficult for fuel procurers to sort through the details. To address this problem, NRDC recently published research that evaluates several existing biofuel sustainability certification systems across a range of factors. We hope that this guide will help fuel purchasers make informed decisions.  

As my colleagues have stated before, biofuels can reduce carbon pollution emissions, provide ecological services, and provide new sources of transportation fuel. But poorly developed ones can do the opposite: increase carbon emissions, destroy biodiversity, and collapse under their own environmental weight. Therefore, without guidance, commercial fuel users could be unknowingly associated to these outcomes. Discovering the true environmental impact of a biofuel requires tracing it back to where feedstocks are grown and analyzing those practices, but few risk managers and procurement officials have the time and resources to do this. Fortunately, this is where voluntary sustainability certification systems come in, and our guide, we hope, will help buyers choose their most sustainable fuel.

Voluntary certification systems are there to assure fuel buyers that the biofuel they’re purchasing is sustainable. The process begins when an interested biofuel company voluntarily applies for certification. The certification system evaluates the project across a range of factors such as biodiversity impacts, carbon emissions, water quality, and social criteria.  Auditors perform facility and field-level inspections, verifying that the project performs as expected. If the producer passes the sustainability audit, it becomes a certified producer. In this way, certification systems provide biofuel buyers with greater confidence that the fuel they are purchasing from certified producers is reducing their carbon emissions and protecting the environment. They simply must look for certified producers or establish a preference for certified fuels in their procurement process.

Fuel buyers should look for the most protective certification systems, but choosing can be can be complicated due to systems’ scope and complexity. That’s why NRDC published an in depth evaluation of the main certification systems operating today. The report examines their coverage, implementation and design process. Overall, we found the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) to be the most protective. On balance, it simply performed the best considering air quality, water quality, human rights, biodiversity and quality assurance.  The report and a factsheet can be found here.  

The world needs low-carbon substitutes to oil, and large fuel users can help develop them by leveraging their purchasing power.  They deserve credit for their efforts.  By establishing a preference for certified sustainable biofuels, large fuel purchasers can help to shape a biofuel industry that delivers long-term environmental benefits.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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