“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This widely cited statement was one of the first formal attempts to define sustainable development. Now, as governments worldwide attempt to set standards, develop regulations, and offer incentives for the development and use of bioenergy, a host of interests—policymakers and scientists, farmers and refiners, environmentalists and others—are working to define sustainability in the specific context of bioenergy. Among the key components under discussion are air, water, and soil quality; greenhouse gas emissions; biodiversity; land conversion; and socio-economic considerations, including the support of rural development.

Much at Stake

There is little doubt that a growing world population will heighten debate over how to meet human needs while protecting fragile ecosystems and improving those already degraded.  Crops grown to be processed into fuel, often called biomass, have great possibility to provide high-yielding energy feedstocks with fewer inputs such as water and fertilizer, and smaller greenhouse gas footprints, while at the same time improving water quality and wildlife habitat.

Many are hopeful that acceleration of biomass-based energy incentives may spur a new sustainability model in agricultural and forest landscapes as governments reconsider land use policies to better balance humankind’s social and economic needs with those of natural systems.  

How policymakers refine the definition of “sustainability,” therefore, will be a critical question moving forward in the development of the biomass sector. 


In the U.S.  
As Americans reeled from the Middle-Eastern oil embargos of the 1970s, Congress passed the nation’s first biofuels legislation. The Energy Security Act of 1980 was the first to recognize the role of “gasohol” in achieving energy independence on a “renewable” and “sustainable” basis.

The dual goals of energy independence and rural development formed the initial U.S. definition of “renewable” fuels. Elsewhere, greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction emerged as an additional element of biomass “sustainability” in the 1990s and 2000s, as agreed to in the Kyoto Protocol. But it was not until the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) that U.S. policy introduced a requirement that biofuels achieve GHG reductions when compared with fossil fuels.

Today, as policy makers in Washington attempt to fill remaining voids in federal GHG policy, states such as California continue to pursue aggressive bioenergy policies introduced in the early 2000s, primarily to reduce GHG emissions, and including transportation fuels.

“As emphasized by Congress in requiring triennial biofuel impact assessments, it is important to evaluate the environmental implications associated with the ongoing growth of the dynamic biofuel industry.” —Biofuels and the Environment: The First Triennial Report to Congress (Jan. 2011)

Key Issues

Environmental sustainability
While biofuels may be an effective GHG reduction tool, fears have surfaced that increased demand for biomass driven by GHG policies could, without sufficient safeguards, encourage overharvest of forests and conversion of ecologically-sensitive lands.

In addition, careless practices can threaten biodiversity and diminish water and soil quality.

Invasiveness controversy also looms on the horizon, as litigation challenging the release of genetically engineered food and feed crops without sufficient environmental review threatens to spill over to crops being developed specifically as a raw material for bioenergy.

Socio-economic sustainability
This has grown in recent years parallel with development of bioenergy policies.  Concerns abound.  The “food versus fuel” moniker that emerged from the price spikes of 2008 almost certainly will linger to the extent biomass appears to compete with food crops for land. 

There are fears that land “grabs” in developing and underdeveloped countries may harm indigenous peoples or subsistence farmers without formal delineation of property rights.

In the U.S. the shuttering of Midwestern ethanol plants in the late 2000s dealt blows to rural economic development initiatives, while adding to critics’ claims that rural prosperity should not depend heavily on chemical inputs that degrade soil and water quality. And, there are concerns that if large expanses of land are devoted to growing one crop for biomass production, it could hurt vital habitat dynamics.

Five Questions

1. What is the difference between renewable and sustainable?
The words “renewable” and “sustainable” are often used interchangeably with biofuels. Originally, renewable referred merely to the growing of crops used for energy. It has evolved to also include the practices used in growing, cutting, and transporting the crops—the entire production chain. In policymaking, renewable is the more typically used word, as in “Renewable Fuel Standard,” while in law, sustainability typically refers to practices.

2. What are the current greenhouse gas rules for biofuels in the U.S.?
Policymakers continue to grapple with development, application, and coordination of greenhouse gas emission accounting methodologies for biomass-based feedstocks.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is supposed to calculate GHG emissions from indirect land use change in order for fuels to qualify under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).  Economic modelers, however, have further work to do in refining assumptions and parameters, and fortifying information, for various fuel pathways.  Challenges to EPA’s methodologies were recently filed in federal court by Friends of the Earth.

3. Is bioenergy considered carbon neutral?
Other than the Renewable Fuel Standard the federal Clean Air Act does not address GHGs specifically, let alone the intricacies of methodologies for measuring life cycle emissions from biomass combustion. Thus, whether biomass is “carbon neutral” remains the subject of considerable debate. The EPA has signaled recently that for stationary sources that use biomass as a feedstock, although it “plans to provide further guidance on how to consider the unique GHG attributes of biomass as fuel,” permitting authorities may balance the environmental, energy and economic benefits of biomass combustion, including goals of state bioenergy mandates. Lastly, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has tied at least some Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) payments to GHG reduction, no formal calculation methodology currently exists within BCAP rules.   

Meanwhile, the European Union in December delayed a decision on how it will account for indirect land use in lifecycle emission calculations for GHGs under its Renewable Energy Directive (RED).       

4. What about other environmental issues?
Bioenergy laws and several voluntary standard initiatives are designing ways to address the “other” environmental and socio-economic aspects of increased biomass production. The Triennial Report on the sustainability of the RFS, which EPA only recently issued, identifies many of the sustainability concerns associated with biofuels, including water, soil and air quality, and biodiversity. The USDA currently is in the process of developing conservation planning for federally subsidized biomass crops, but concedes that biomass-specific practices remain underdeveloped.  USDA conducts some levels of environmental assessment of U.S. agriculture under other laws, and has required conservation planning at least on highly erodible lands for over 25 years.  The effectiveness of these programs, however, has been subject to growing scrutiny.

5. How is the issue of displacing food crops being addressed?
Policymakers must continue to hone mechanisms to measure and mitigate any negative effects crops grown for energy may have on food prices.  EPA has the authority to adjust federal renewable fuel mandates if food prices are affected. Environmental groups have mounted legal challenges, however, to EPA’s methodologies in measuring land conversion. The European Union’s RED requires the commission to periodically report on food price impacts, encourages member states to develop policies that incentivize non-food and waste feedstocks, and provides a GHG “bonus” for crops grown on “degraded” land.  The U.S. does not currently have a comprehensive policy in place to incentivize biomass production on lands that are idle, marginal, degraded, or abandoned.

Looking ahead, what to watch

  • Whether government-sponsored or private in nature, any sustainability standard for energy biomass relies critically upon supporting scientific research which, at the moment, is in its embryonic stages.  Measuring the costs, benefits, and barriers to achieving and enforcing different levels of sustainability will be critical to the nascent sector.
  • The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations last year devised an analytical framework in which to consider food security questions within the context of bioenergy production, and is in the process of developing assessment criteria and indicators that may be helpful.
  • How biofuels policies define “degraded,” “marginal,” “abandoned,” and “idle” land will be pivotal to the food versus fuel question as well as protection of biodiversity and other environmental values.
  • In the U.S., the Council for Sustainable Biomass Production is field-testing a provisional standard that contains principles governing air, water and soil quality, GHG emissions, biodiversity, land conversion, and socio-economic considerations such as respect for labor laws.  Similar voluntary standards for energy biomass are in development in Europe and Brazil, and at the international level.
  • Both California and the European Union are pursuing sustainability standards to accompany their greenhouse gas reduction programs.  



Jody Endres, senior regulatory associate with the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, oversaw content development and contributed writing to this special section. Endres chairs the Council for Sustainable Biomass Production’s Field Testing Task Force and the Environmental Subcommittee of the Leonardo Academy’s ANSI standard development for sustainable agriculture.



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