Three pillars to operationalizing biofuel sustainability standards in agricultral and forest landscapes

How to balance land uses to sustainably feed, clothe, and power a burgeoning population aspiring to western lifestyles will be one of the most profound challenges to the world's policymakers in the 21st century. And climate change's unpredictable effects on natural systems will exacerbate already complex, uncertain, and contentious land-use decision making. While biomass-based energy policies gained momentum throughout the 2000s as one way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, assumptions about biofuels' environmental and societal benefits are beginning to come under closer scrutiny. For example, if not grown on marginal or idle lands, biomass competes with food cropping for productive land, posing a potential threat to food security. Higher commodity prices brought about by land scarcity may spur indirect land-use changes in areas of high carbon stocks, which may increase net greenhouse gas emissions associated with biomass production. More recently, sustainability concerns have reached beyond greenhouse gas emissions to other negative environmental and social impacts associated with biomass production. In response, bioenergy laws have incorporated varying forms of sustainability considerations. Many private standards have emerged, however, to fill real and perceived gaps, or in some cases to anticipate future regulatory requirements for increased sustainability.

The looming question remains whether these conceptual sustainability frameworks can actually be operationalized to achieve the desired level of environmental and social protection. I examine the drivers of sustainability requirements for biomass-based energy in the U.S., EU, and Brazil, including current bioenergy legislation, as well as discuss the perception by interest groups that governments and markets have failed to protect the natural and human environment within fields and forests through enforcement of environmental, agricultural, and other laws. These drivers form the basis for various private and private– public standards that have developed at national and international levels, which I also briefly review.

Three specific obstacles must be overcome for standards to be operationalized. First, substantive instruments must be assessed, developed, and executed to establish resource baselines, set goals, design practices, and measure results that are specific (and often unique) to biomass production. I will provide a brief overview of the U.S.'s Council for Sustainable Biomass Production's initial field testing results of its provisional standard to chart the planning mechanisms, criteria, and indicators that generalized principles depend on to actually achieve quantifiable, credible results. I also identify needs for additional scientific and experiential know-how and how existing programs might provide valuable tools, such as the U.S.'s Natural Resource Conservation Service conservation practice standards.

Substantive measurement, assessment, and execution of sustainability regimes ultimately, however, demands effective and accountable governance—the second pillar of operationalization. I discuss—within the context of the agri-food, forestry, and, to a lesser extent, agricultural biomass sectors— various theoretical approaches to public, private–public, and private governance. I then highlight from my experience in standard-setting groups the various stakeholder dynamics and organizational structures that have evolved to reduce costs of environmental certification while achieving a level of landscape improvement. I also speculate whether and how a shift in consumer preferences and norms for increased energy biomass feedstock sustainability could improve public and private governance mechanisms such as inclusiveness and transparency in the development process, as well as a "web of norms" for sustainable agriculture.

Lastly, it is the development of both substantive instruments and this web of norms—both of which are ongoing within supra-governmental standard setting both at national and international levels—that are critical pieces to operationalization of the third pillar: international trade facilitation of biomass and biofuels. As the first hints of discord emerge (e.g., U.S. biodiesel shipments to the EU), governments will be faced with reconciling their own definitions of biomass sustainability within processes such as the International Organization for Standardization and European Committee for Standardization, as well as with the laws of theWorld Trade Organization. I conclude by explaining the tension that might arise between a separate international standard on biomass sustainability and other international climate and biodiversity regulation to the extent that current biomass standards contain greenhouse gas accounting and biodiversity methodologies, and I suggest mechanisms for reconciliation moving forward.

Jody M. Endres

Jody M. Endres
Adjunct Professor, Department of Natural
Resources and Environmental Sciences