“The development of rigorous, credible global sustainability standards and their uptake in the marketplace are critical to the success of the renewable fuels industry.”
Suzanne Hunt, Senior Advisor, Carbon War Room

WHAT IS A SUSTAINABLE RENEWABLE FUEL?

What defines a renewable fuel source as sustainable? Among other things, renewable fuels shouldn’t compete for food or replace natural habitats like forests. And their benefits and safety should be scientifically tested and proven. Unlike fossil fuels, which are extracted from the ground and cannot be regenerated, renewable fuels can be sourced or made over and over again. These fuels can be made from natural waste – like woody biomass – as well as sugar, vegetable oil, garbage, pollution from factories and algae. The sustainability of these fuels varies dramatically depending upon how a fuel is made, what it is made from and from where it originates.



For more than 100 years the world’s economies have run on fossil fuels. Our transport sector has become dependent on a single source of energy: petroleum. We move nearly all of our food and goods – and ourselves – with fuels that come from petroleum. For many decades the paradigm has been to extract oil from beneath the earth’s surface, refine it and burn it in our cars, trucks, ship, and airplanes – polluting the air that we breathe and putting carbon that had been safely stored within the earth into the atmosphere.

Now that scientists warn that we must change the way we power our economies, and because of the price volatility and costs of petroleum, people all over the world are developing new ways to power transportation, including fuels that are made from material collected or grown on the surface of the earth. These new fuels – referred to here as 'renewable fuels'; some are also called 'biofuels' and some are referred to as 'low-carbon' or 'alternative' fuels – unlock a whole new set of both risks and opportunities.

The enormous diversity in renewable fuel feedstocks, geographies and business practices makes a blanket statement about the sustainability of these new fuels impossible.

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Renewable fuels can be enormously beneficial for the world, or they can actually do more harm than conventional fossil fuels. For example, if biodiverse natural forests are burned to make way for crops that are turned into biofuel, more harm than good will be done. In contrast, there are many technologies and companies working to produce fuels that will reduce GHG emissions, displace fossil fuels, contribute to employment and economic growth, and in some cases provide other environmental and social benefits.

But how do you know which fuels and companies to support and which to avoid? There are an array of efforts under way to define a set of social and environmental safeguards and to label sustainable renewable fuels, particularly biofuels. Some are feedstock specific. Some are geographically oriented. Some are being developed by industry and some by academic and non-profit actors. Some are legal requirements and some are voluntary.

For the purpose of our data collection and rankings, we allow companies to provide documentation of any sustainability certification they have obtained. Currently, the only voluntary sustainability certification system that encompasses all renewable transport fuels that is global, that is multi-stakeholder and that followed the ISEAL best practices for transparency and inclusiveness is the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB). The RSB is a voluntary sustainability certification scheme that has just recently begun certifying producers. It is working to streamline its process and to harmonize with EU and US legal sustainability requirements so as to facilitate the marketplace with credible, rigorous sustainability standards that do not become a market barrier.

SUSTAINABILITY STANDARDS

There is an array of efforts underway to define a set of social and environmental safeguards and to label sustainable renewable fuels, particularly biofuels. To find out more, see the table below, where we outline key characteristics of some of the leading sustainability certification schemes.

Sustainability Scheme ISEAL Membership Multi-Stakeholder Geographic Reach Breadth Year Founded / Stage
Yes. Full ISEAL member. Followed ISEAL best practices Yes Global All biofuels and all biomass Founded in 2007. Began issuing certificates in 2012
No. Did not follow ISEAL best practices No. Did not engage civil society Global All Biomass Founded in 2010. Began issuing certificates in 2011
No. Did not follow ISEAL best practices Yes United States Cellulosic biofuel feedstocks 2007. Released first standard in June 2012. Aiming to start certifying in 2013
Yes. Full ISEAL member. Followed ISEAL best practices Yes Global Forestry products (timber and non-timber) and their processed derivatives Founded in 1993. Began certifying forest products in 1996. Has issued > 20,000 certificates to date
Yes. Full ISEAL member. Followed ISEAL best practices Yes Global Agricultural farms (including palm oil producers) RA founded in 1987. SAN established in 1997. First certification in 1992 (banana plantation in Costa Rica)
Associate Member. Seeking full membership Yes Global Only Sugarcane Bonsucro was born out of the Better Sugar Initiative in 2008. Started certifying sugar producers in 2011
No Yes Global Palm oil and its derivatives Founded 2004. Began certifying in 2008. Certified >10% of global production in 2011
No. Currently seeking Associate Membership Yes Global Soy and its derivatives RTRS Association created in 2006. Certification begun in 2011

Carbon War Room actively welcomes and promotes the development of rigorous sustainability standards. If you want to suggest additional relevant standards and certification programs, please contact us at: aviation@carbonwarroom.com.