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. In a high-level expert's report of November 2018 the important role of bioenergy  in the decarbonisation of certain activities such as aviation or shipping, where currently no other decarbonisation options seem economically deployable at large scale, is underlined (Final Report of the High-Level Panel of the European Decarbonisation Pathways Initiative) .

 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 >>

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.

Land Use Changes

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.

Read more on iLUC...

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

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.


Palm Oil

Palm oil is one of most traded and cheapest vegetable oils. The production and consumption of palm oil over the past 30 years have expanded significantly. Especially in Malaysia and Indonesia – the 2 countries providing 85 % of the world supply – the production has risen by 15 respectively 25 times compared to their beginning in the 1980s. This expansion is partly due to the increased use of palm oil in the food industry, since palm oil has very favorable processing properties, as well as due to the increased use in the production of biodiesel (FAME) and HVO.


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

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’"

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

Global Bioenergy Partnership

IEA Taskforce 40 Bioenergy Trade

iLUC Project

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

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

UNICA - Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association

Bonsucro - sustainable sugar cane initiative