Biofuel and biomass 'sustainability standards' are pure greenwash

On its way to Drax? A loader picking up trees from a clearcut for Enviva near the Ahoskie mill, North Carolina. Photo: Dogwood Alliance.
On its way to Drax? A loader picking up trees from a clearcut for Enviva near the Ahoskie mill, North Carolina. Photo: Dogwood Alliance.
Who and what are biofuel sustainability standards designed to benefit? They are meant to safeguard forests and communities, writes Almuth Ernsting - but their real purpose is to protect the biofuel industry ...
Since there are no checks, no enforcement and no regulator, standards are quite simply an invitation to fraud.

Sustainability standards are our Government's and the EU's answer to any critique of their subsidies and incentives for industrial biomass and biofuels. Energy companies tend to like them, too.

Rainforests being cut down for palm oil biofuels? No worries - EU biofuel standards don't allow any support for biofuel crops grown on recently deforested land.

Slow-growing trees being cut down for pellets to be burned in power stations, pumping even more carbon into the atmosphere than burning coal instead would do? No cause for concern: from next year, subsidies will only be paid if biomass reduces carbon emissions by at least 60% compared to coal.

Don't worry, it's all 'sustainable'

Drax getting pellets from a company that makes them out of clearcut ancient swamp forests in the southern US? Well, Drax's policy says it's all sustainable.

Better still, from next April, they'll even need to prove it complies with some voluntary certification scheme or another, regardless of whether it actually has been certified.

Small farmers being evicted for our biofuels? Hmm, that would come under social standards and the EU hasn't actually introduced any of these.

Don't worry though - there's a good chance the biofuels will certified through some voluntary scheme which says people shouldn't be evicted.

Carbon standard? Any wood will do ...

EU biofuel sustainability and greenhouse gas standards were introduced in the UK in 2011 and the Government has proposed biomass standards from April 2015 - although they have so far delayed introducing them twice.

Both biofuel and proposed biomass standards have been heavily criticised as inadequate: Both ignore all indirect impacts; those for biomass ignore the carbon emissions from cutting down and burning trees and the length of time it takes for new trees to possibly re-absorb that carbon; biofuel standards entirely ignore human rights and the right to land, food and water.

As for the proposed biomass sustainability standards, all they say is that wood must meet the criteria of one of several controversial voluntary certification schemes, not even requiring formal certification.

Additionally, carbon standards are proposed, but those ignore most of the carbon emissions associated with biomass burning. The Government's impact assessment expects wood from absolutely any source to meet those standards.

A remarkable admission

In theory - and with the right political will - much stricter and more comprehensive standards could be introduced, though European NGOs have been campaigning in vain for years to get biofuel standards amended so as to take indirect land use change into account.

But would stricter standards really keep destructive biofuels and biomass out of the country? Or are there deeper problems with the concept of standards?

Since there are no checks, no enforcement and no regulator, standards are quite simply an invitation to fraud.

Hidden away in a recent Government consultation about the impacts of the UK's biofuel mandates and standards - the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) - is a very striking admission:

"Following RED [EU Renewable Energy Directive - which includes biofuel-related targets and standards] implementation the Administrator noted that the volumes of used cooking oil (UCO) derived biofuel being reported as coming from the Netherlands were implausibly high based on the population size."

An obvious explanation - fraud

In other words, companies had declared using vast quantities of Dutch used cooking oil in biofuels and it would have been quite impossible for Dutch people to eat enough chips to end up with that much waste vegetable oil.

So what they declared to be "used cooking oil from the Netherlands" must have been something else - for all we know, it may have been palm oil from clearcut Indonesian rainforests.

The background to this scam is that since 2011, biofuels from waste have counted double towards biofuel targets, so using - or claiming to use - these has become more profitable.

If companies had planned this fraud a bit better they could have classed their biofuels as used cooking oil from many different countries rather than just from one small one - then no questions would have been asked.

But who's bothered?

Not that any company has been penalised for lying about biofuel supplies. And this leads back to one of the most fundamental problems with such standards.

Companies love standards because they are a market mechanism, not regulation. This means there is no independent authority that checks where their wood or biofuels are actually coming from or stops them from using anything in particular.

All that's required of them is to pay another company - a consultancy of their choice - to give them a piece of paper to say their wood, palm oil or whatever else they are using is "sustainable".  And if one consultancy was to refuse, they can shop around for another.

Clearcut swamp forests in southern US

Pellet producers in North America expect that if the UK introduces biomass standards, energy companies might only need a letter from the forest owner to say that their forest was sustainably managed.

90% of forests in the southern US (where a lot of the wood burnt by Drax and E.On comes from) are privately owned and many of those landowners are profiting greatly from the new demand for pellets.

According to the US conservation NGO Dogwood Alliance, 75% of the wood in swamp forests that are now being clearcut is unsuitable for sawmills but used for pellet production.

So without the demand for pellets, there would be no incentive for forest owners to clear, rather than selectively log, those forests. But which forest owner will be honest enough to admit that their logging is unsustainable if this means foregoing lucrative income from pellet sales to the UK?

The intention is to 'secure support'

Verification and regulatory enforcement alone would not resolve the problems with standards. After all, a hugely unsustainable demand for wood or biofuels can never be made 'sustainable' by simply assessing individual shipments of them.

Such an approach would merely lead to companies selling palm oil or wood from land deforested a long time ago to Europe for bioenergy and at the same time cutting down more forest for plantations aimed at other markets.

But since there are no checks, no enforcement and no regulator, standards are quite simply an invitation to fraud.

Yet while standards fail to prevent forest destruction, human rights abuses and worsening climate change linked to biofuels and biomass, they offer tangible benefits to energy companies.

One of official policy objectives behind the proposed UK biomass standards is to "help secure the support of local government, NGOs and the public for proposed new bioenergy developments".

Giving biofuels the green light - no matter what

This is not simply achieved through greenwashing: In February 2011, Secretary of State Eric Pickles approved an application for a large palm oil power station in Avonmouth, overruling Bristol City Council's decision to reject the plans as unsustainable and high-carbon.

In his decision, Pickles laid out rules which have since been communicated to planning authorities:

  • Biofuel and biomass power station applications cannot be rejected on grounds of wider sustainability or climate change impacts;
  • planners can merely impose a condition that developers must comply with government standards.

The existence or even the mere promise of future standards is thus being used to ensure that power stations get the green light regardless of whether they burn palm oil or wood from clearcut ancient swamp forests.




  • Who's the biggest biomass baddie? Find out more and vote for one of our nominees in the Biomess Awards.
  • Take part in the Biomess Awards Ceremony at a protest outside a Gala Dinner for delegates of a big European Biomass Industry Conference, including Drax, E.On and their North American suppliers.

Almuth Ernsting
is co-Director of Biofuelwatch.


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