Sustainability Criteria for Biofuel Production Need Room for Development

The European Union's Renewable Energy Directive has set a 10% target for renewable energy use in transport by 2020. Only biofuels that meet specified sustainability standards are incorporated in the renewable energy goals and permitted to leverage national support systems. Kati Koponen, a research scientist from VTT, suggests a number of criteria for development of greenhouse gas assessment method in her doctoral thesis.

Kati Koponen (Photo: VTT)

Based on the life cycle assessment method, the measurement of greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels is often utilized to describe the sustainability of biofuels. Kati Koponen, in her doctoral thesis, has examined how a life cycle assessment-based tool can be used in policy-driven decision-making concerning biofuels and the challenges associated with the assessment.

Though life cycle assessment has been extensively utilized for evaluating the effect of products on the environment, the method still includes challenges related to the following examples; the distribution of emissions between different products, system boundary setting, and the description of calculation parameters. When this life cycle assessment is applied in political decision-making, the necessary simplifications may trigger more method-related issues. Results of the study reveal that the EU’s current method of calculation alone is not sufficient to guarantee the beneficial effects of biofuels on climate.

Kati Koponen suggests the following sustainability criteria in her dissertation;

  • Specified in the existing sustainability criteria, the calculation method do not consider emissions because of indirect market effects that may arise from an increase in the production of biofuels. These include, effects on the fuel market and indirect modifications in land use. When bioenergy targets are set, these effects must be comprehensively assessed to simplify the sustainability criteria determination.
  • At present, the calculation method overlooks uncertainties linked with greenhouse gas calculation, arising from, for example, poor knowledge or flawed background data of emission impacts. These uncertainties have to be recognized and considered, because life cycle assessment is only an evaluation of the reality.
  • In most of the cases, by-products are created during biofuel production. At present, emissions are separated between products based on their energy content, although the by-product is used as an animal feed. Price-based distribution would explain the economic cause and impact correlation between products and also double counting rule recommended in the directive for waste and residue-based raw materials. As per the double counting rule, biofuels generated from raw materials based on waste and residue may be calculated as double in the general biofuel goal.
  • The greenhouse gas emissions calculation due to the production of biofuel ought to detect potential reduction in carbon stocks of the ecosystem and missed carbon sequestration. The impacts can be detected by incorporating the land use reference method in the life cycle assessment of bioenergy.

The EU’s sustainability criteria have to be expanded to ensure the utilization of bioenergy systems that efficiently maintain climate change mitigation.

Kati Koponen, M.Sc. (Tech) and Research Scientist at the Technical Research Centre of Finland, will be presenting her doctoral thesis, Challenges of an LCA based decision making framework – the case of EU sustainability criteria for biofuels (Elinkaariarviointiin pohjautuvan päätöksenteon haasteet liittyen EU:n biopolttoaineille asettamiin kestävyyskriteereihin), on 15 June 2016, at 12.00 noon, at the Aalto University School of Engineering for public examination.

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