Sustainability and climate change performance of biofuels

The policy motivation driving alternatives to fossil fuel technology includes climate change mitigation and energy security concerns alongside economic imperatives. The EU regulations have more recently recognised the potential for biofuels to have a negative rather than positive impact on climate change and mandated that the impacts of indirect land use change (iLUC) be taken into account. EU targets for transport biofuels have been reduced. The UK and Scotland incentivise biomass for heating but more recently have mandated that criteria for sourcing and using wood fuels incorporating iLUC must be met for subsidy. The EU has working parties aimed at establishing sustainability criteria and reporting, but this is not yet in place, the provenance of systems relying on imported wood pellets for example is currently open to question.

Mainstream research published on the Brazilian large scale Bio-ethanol industry has generally concluded that the bio-ethanol produced can be sustainable in favourable circumstances, but notes that due to the heterogeneous nature of the industry problems can and are occurring. Large scale bio-ethanol is a heavily industrialised process carried out with lean production and economies of scale. The economic imperative is the main driver within the largely policy driven markets with implications for land distribution and security of rural labour that are discussed further in the section on work.


There appears to be a gap with respect to a global quality standard for sustainability of biofuels with suitably rigorous monitoring and independent verification. Until this is resolved uncertainties will remain as to carbon impacts and wider sustainability performance of bio-fuels. Bio-fuel industry technology is rapidly evolving driven by cost optimisation, it is important that sustainability assessment inform these changes.


The creation of multi criteria sustainability and carbon counting standards and a supporting monitoring and quality assurance system is vital to making correct decisions that do not take for granted the leading massive-scale, monoculture model. Much research needs to be done to establish and validate such a system, individual elements need to be researched and monitoring regimes established for each element of sustainability.