Biofuels and Sustainability

The potential risks of biofuel production for food security, biodiversity and the environment are hotly debated. New reports and articles are continuously being published on the subject. This page gives a brief introduction to different aspects of the sustainability of biofuels and provides links to several important reports and websites for more in-depth information. 



  1. Potential environmental and social risks of biofuel production
  2. Sustainability criteria for biofuels
  3. Certification of sustainable biofuels: opportunities and limitations
  4. Certification initiatives for biofuels and biofuel feedstock
  5. International initiatives


1.  Potential environmental and social risks of biofuel production

Biofuels potentially have the ability to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, to diversify the supply of transport fuels (energy security) and to create opportunities for rural development. However, the concern exists that the pressure on land due to the rapid increase in the demand for biofuel feedstock will cause a range of negative effects, both environmental and social.

Environmental risks

The increased demand for feedstock can, directly or indirectly, lead to the conversion of forests and other natural ecosystems into plantations or cropland. These changes in land-use often cause so much carbon release from vegetation and soil that the GHG-savings from the use of biofuels are negated. In forest and other natural ecosystems much organic carbon is stored above ground in plant biomass and below ground in the form of roots and organic material. These carbon storages have been built up over many years. When the natural vegetation is removed to make place for crops the carbon that is stored in this vegetation is lost. Additionally, the preparation of soil for agricultural purposes (drainage, tillage) enhances the decomposition of the soil organic material, which leads to the loss of soil carbon.  Land-use-change can also lead to the loss of important habitat for plants and animals and the endangerment of rare species. In addition, biomass production can lead to degradation of soils and exacerbation of water bodies.

Social risks

Another important concern is the potential competition between biofuels and food. An increased demand for agricultural commodities leads to higher food prices. Biofuels produced from these agricultural commodities (e.g. sugar, maize) contribute to this. Furthermore, if the appropriate conditions, such as secure land rights for smallholders, are not in place, the competing resource claims among local population, governments and biofuel producers may result in poorer groups losing access to the land on which they depend.

Publications on the sustainability risks of biofuels

The Royal Society (2008): Sustainable Biofuels, prospects and challenges  [PDF 788 KB]

House of Commons, Environmental Audit Committee (2008): Are biofuels sustainable? [PDF 2.16 MB]

International Risk Governance Council (2008): Risk governance guidelines for bioenergy policies [PDF 1.9 MB]

Doornbosch, R. & Steenblik, R. - commissioned by OECD - (2007): Biofuels: Is the cure worse than the disease? [PDF 606 KB]

Energy Transition (2008): Biomass hot issue [PDF 3.59 MB]

FAO & IIED (2008) - Fuelling exclusion? The biofuels boom and poor people's access to land [PDF 1.25 KB]

REFUEL (2008): Eyes on the track, mind on the horizon. From inconvenient rapeseed to clean wood: a European road map for biofuels [PDF 1.76 KB]



2. Sustainability criteria for biofuels

The above mentioned concerns on the risks of large-scale biofuel production have led to the demand for criteria and certification systems for sustainable biofuels. But what are sustainable biofuels? At the moment there is no fixed and commonly accepted definition of a sustainable biofuel. Lists of sustainability criteria by which the production, transport and processing of biofuels can be assessed for environmental, social and other values can differ. However in general sustainability criteria for biofuels contain the following elements:

  • Well-to-Wheel GHG-emission reduction;
  • No competition with food or feed;
  • No negative impact on protected or vulnerable biodiversity;
  • Taking in account the 3 P's: People, Planet, Profit.

A number of organisations (public and private) are developing or have developed sustainability criteria for biofuels. Examples are:

  • The new Renewable Energy Directive of the European Commission, which sets minimum criteria for the sustainability of biofuels. Download proposed new directive [PDF 204kB].
  • The sustainability criteria developed by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels in conjunction with non-governmental organizations, companies, governments and inter-governmental groups from all over the world. The draft criteria can be found here.
  • The testing framework for sustainable biomass developed by a Dutch project group consisting of representatives from industry, government, banking, NGO's and research. Download the testing framework.



3. Certification of sustainable biofuels: opportunities and limitations

Certification provides reliable and traceable information on the criteria and indicators defined in a certification scheme. It can help ensure sustainable production of biofuel feedstock when it comes to the direct results of companies' activities in their immediate surroundings. On a company level certification can, for example, prevent negative effects on the local biodiversity, water supply and soil conditions or prevent negative impacts on social-wellbeing of local communities.

However, certification systems for sustainable biofuels (feedstock) are not able to address the effects of large scale biofuel feedstock production on a macro level (regional, national). These "macro effects" are for example rising food prices or the displacement of agricultural production onto uncultivated areas (indirect land use change) with impacts on biodiversity, GHG savings and local land rights. To prevent these macro problems other instruments have to be developed by governments or international organisations. An important first step is to develop a sound monitoring system for macro-effects.

Publications about biofuels certification

JTRC - Joint Transport Research Centre (2007): The Environmental Certification of Biofuels [PDF 311 KB]

Ecofys/WWF (2007): Towards a harmonised sustainable biomass certification scheme [PDF 704 KB]

Renewable Fuels Agency (2008): Guidance on Biofuels Sustainability Reporting

Renewable Fuels Agency (2008): Gallagher review [PDF 1 KB]

Umwelt Bundes Ambt (2008): Criteria for a Sustainable Use of Bioenergy on a Global Scale [PDF 2.5 MB]

Van Dam et al (2007): Overview of recent developments in sustainable biomass certification [PDF 327 KB]



4. Certification initiatives for biofuels and biofuel feedstock

Most certification initiatives focus on one specific (biofuel) feedstock, such as palm oil (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), soy (Roundtable on Responsible Soy), sugarcane (Better Sugarcane Initiative) or wood (Forest stewardship council).

However there are some initiatives that focus on biofuels in general.  Examples are:

  • The Round Table of Sustainable Biofuels, an international initiative which aims to achieve global, multi-stakeholder consensus around the principles and criteria of sustainable biofuels production. It brings together farmers, companies, non-governmental organizations, experts, governments, and inter-governmental agencies.
  • A pilot program funded by the German Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, which focuses on verifying compliance with sustainability standards for the production of biofuels and the calculation of GHG emissions along the value chain. More information are available here



5. International organisations that focus on biofuels and sustainability

In addition to the certification initiatives listed above there are several other international organisations active in the field of sustainability of biofuels/bioenergy. Examples are:

  • The Global BioEnergy Partnership (GBEP), an initiative of the Heads of State and Government of the G8 + 5 (China, Brazil, India, Mexico and South Africa) that brings together public, private and civil society stakeholders in a joint commitment to promote bioenergy for sustainable development.
  • The International Energy Agency IEA Task 40 which aims to support the development of sustainable, international, bioenergy markets, recognising the diversity in resources and biomass applications.
  • The sustainability workgroup within the European Biofuels Technology Platform that takes into account the environmental, economic and social impacts of Biofuel development in Europe. It aims to define transparent sustainability indicators for Biofuels particularly in relation to the technical research that is one of the other focus points of the platform.
  • The Bioenergy and Food Security (BEFS) Project, funded by the Government of Germany and implemented by the FAO Climate Change and Bioenergy Division, aims to analyse the risks and opportunities of bioenergy and how it could affect food security in partner countries.