Biofuel standards need improvement to protect rainforests

An unclear definition of 'degraded land' is just one of the problems.

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Photo by Jeff Walker/CIFOR

BOGOR, Indonesia (28 October, 2011)_Researchers from the Center for International Forestry Research have recommended that voluntary biofuel standards explicitly address the problems that may arise from the development of new plantations, should industry continue to label oil palm, sugar cane, soya and related fuel products as “environmentally sustainable”.

A survey of the environmental standards of six major biofuel sustainability frameworks revealed that all failed to address what sorts of degraded forestland can be used for new plantations and how those new plantations may increase land competition for agriculture and indirectly cause deforestation in neighboring areas.

“All the standards say you shouldn’t deforest in planting new biofuel crops, but they are still not clear on exactly how you do that,” says Manuel Guariguata, CIFOR scientist and lead author of the CIFOR report, A review of environmental issues in the context of biofuel sustainability frameworks.

Guariguata and his colleagues examined the certification standards which are currently required by the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive, the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the Roundtable on Responsible Soy Association and the Better Sugarcane Initiative, to certify biofuels as environmentally sustainable.

They also looked at the Forest Stewardship Council’s standards which apply to biofuel production from woody biomass, a method expected to expand in the near future.  All except the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive are voluntary schemes that producers enter into to earn good standing in the marketplace; meeting the Renewable Energy Directive requirements means a biofuel product can be used by EU countries to meet the region’s goal of 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Many of the standards prohibit deforestation when establishing a new plantation. However, according to Guariguata, most of them are weak when accounting for greenhouse gas emissions and forest loss if agricultural and ranching operations are pushed into virgin land because of biofuel plantation expansion. These negative, indirect impacts of biofuels may offset the fuels’ positive contributions to global warming.

While many of the standards promote planting in degraded forestland to minimize impact, the study says the definition of “degraded” is subjective and producers are basically left to decide for themselves. “The standards all need to have an operational definition of what ’degraded’ means,” says Guariguata.

As “degraded forestland” has a different definition depending on the country and context in question, Guariguata suggests proposed definitions such as that of UN Framework on Climate Convention (based on the amount of carbon remaining or already lost on a site) could potentially be adopted by the standards.

National governments may also need to establish a regulatory layer of mandatory requirements for biofuel plantations which could complement voluntary schemes, added Guariguata. These requirements, which would largely relate to sound land use planning, might help to protect biodiversity in forests outside of protected areas which may  threatened by plantation development. National requirements would also counter the current export of biofuels that don’t meet any sustainability standard to countries and markets that aren’t interested in certified products and good practices.

Guariguata says that it is still too early to objectively assess whether these relatively new standards reviewed by the report are effective in maintaining environmental integrity while avoiding deforestation. Future research about whether the implementation of the sustainability standards are effectively deterring deforestation, is needed.

“Sound data will allow us to see how these different biofuel standards are really doing their job,” he says.

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