ANALYSIS: How sustainable are biofuels used in the EU?

It depends. That is the somewhat uncomfortable answer a comparison of all certification schemes accepted under EU RED (European Renewable Energy Directive) brought to light.

It depends, because the standards accepted by the European Commission as proof of sustainability vary greatly in their quality and credibility. Yes, they all fulfil the mandatory EU RED requirements, but these are not enough.
 / ©: WWF
WWF's benchmarking study analyses and compares all EU-recognised standards and schemes for sustainable biofuels production that were established as of June, 2013.

Measuring the 13 standards and certification schemes against WWF’s sustainability criteria, it reveals each standard’s added sustainability value as well as identified areas for improvement.

Multi-stakeholder schemes with active participation from different stakeholder groups at all levels of the scheme -  from audits to governance - perform best in the assessment. The top three schemes are: the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) and the Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS).

The study finds that a significant number of standards do not fulfil basic environmental and social criteria. Many also score very low on transparency, internal governance, sample size and audit rigour, which are crucial for the implementation of the standard in the field.

In other words, without good standard governance, strong audits, regular checks of the auditors (accreditation) and transparency to allow stakeholders to understand and participate, the standard is hardly worth the paper it is printed on.

It is comparable to democratic systems and why, with all their problems, they are still the strongest political systems we trust.

Best performance

Multi-stakeholder schemes with active participation from different stakeholder groups at all levels of the scheme- from audits to governance - perform best in the assessment.

This also means that the multi-stakeholder schemes will most likely result in better field-level implementation. And this is what this is all about: ensure that the biofuels used in the EU do not cause deforestation or conversion of other important areas, do not cause or aggravate food shortage, but end up reducing greenhouse gas emissions and do not provoke any other major harm, such as drying up water supplies, using poisonous pesticides, employing children on the farms in countries where the biofuels are produced.

How can biofuel standards improve?

  • Allow for meaningful multi-stakeholder participation that gives industry, social and environmental interests the same weight;
  • Be more transparent and improve public reporting. This is essential to allow active stakeholder involvement;
  • Offer grievance mechanisms to allow stakeholders to contest certificates and product labels;
  • Go beyond the mandatory EU RED requirements to ensure that biofuels used in the EU reach an acceptable degree of sustainability;
  • Prescribe a risk-based approach, meaning more audits where the risks and the situations are more complex. Mere desk audits are not acceptable;
  • Ban highly hazardous chemicals that are listed in WHO Classes 1A, 1B and 2 (including Paraquat), and those listed in the Stockholm and Rotterdam Conventions;
  • Monitor and report on impacts (i.e. the change the application of the standard has led to).

And what about EU RED?

When the EC reviews its criteria, it should:
  • Do this in a more transparent way to allow stakeholders participation;
  • Include a grievance mechanism;
  • Monitor how effective the certifications are in addressing sustainability issues;
  • Regularly review whether the implementation practice of the standard complies with the legislation and include the results of this for the approval process.

 / ©: Global Warming Image / WWF-Canon
A display about biofuels at the center of Technology at Machynlleth, UK
© Global Warming Image / WWF-Canon
 / ©: Global Warming Images / WWF-Canon
A biofuel petrol station in Ecija, Andalucia, Spain
© Global Warming Images / WWF-Canon
 / ©: Global Warming Images / WWF-Canon
Oil rape seed on farmland for biofuel production Yorkshire, UK
© Global Warming Images / WWF-Canon

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