Sustainability and Credibility

By Robert Vierhout | June 10, 2010
In my March column I discussed biofuel sustainability schemes and their certification. I used such words as uncertainty, chaos, maze and booming business to describe my view on this phenomenon. I didn't say anything on credibility of sustainability schemes. Let me complete my commentary.

A sustainability scheme becomes credible if it is not overly bureaucratic, is manageable and can deliver easily verified results, as well as sets goals that are achievable in a reasonable way without undermining economic viability. In short, if it has the potential of being used.

The European Renewable Energy Directive is not easy to comply with, but it is doable. There are some stiff criteria such as a phased-in greenhouse-gas-(GHG) saving threshold of 35 percent, no-go areas and a mass balance bookkeeping system but still, the industry will eventually manage. The upside is that the biofuel industry will have a head start on other sectors that still can operate without these limitations (and there are many).

The European law allows approved voluntary certification schemes. The Roundtable for Sustainable Biofuels is one multi-stakeholder initiative underway to develop a voluntary scheme. The RSB, begun in 2006 by a Swiss university well before the RED became law, is an example of how the perfect can become the enemy of the good. The objective: "to develop a tool that consumers, policy-makers, companies, banks, and other actors can use to ensure that biofuels deliver on their promise of sustainability." The RSB has multiple stakeholders organized in 11 chambers.

In 2006 it seemed a good idea to sign up to the RSB, especially as criticism on biofuels was growing. A large number of industry stakeholders joined so they could proclaim, "We are responsible entrepreneurs, we are part of the RSB." For industry stakeholders it was then, and still is, mainly a public relations tool.

Recently eBIO (and our colleagues at the European Biodiesel Board) stepped out of the RSB after lengthy discussions with biofuel producers. Most of the industry players perceived the RSB process as overly bureaucratic and its governance structure unbalanced. Chamber 2, the industry chamber had 27 members whereas Chamber 5 had one, Chamber 6 four and Chamber 9 two. All chambers, however, have the same number of representatives on the steering committee. We, like others, felt that the governance structure should do more justice to those stakeholders that have to deliver the goods: agriculture and biofuel producers. The issue was addressed by creating a committee to study the concerns. That was a real downer.

The most important reason we left is not, as been suggested, that we do not believe in sustainable biofuels. The main reason is that we want to focus on the successful implementation of the European law. Spending our precious time on a talking shop that is trying to put in place the next-to-perfect sustainability schemegoing far beyond what is required by the European legislators and that will probably not be used anywaywas no longer an option.

The letter of resignation we sent to the RSB was leaked to the press. As a response to eBIO and EBB stepping out, a number of NGOs asked RSB members to sign a statement of confidence and allegiance to the RSB process and "restating full commitment and support to achieve sustainability in biofuels." It almost felt like being back in the Middle-Ages when Henry VIII asked all his "loyal" subjects to sign a declaration. Did some get nervous by our step? Did we put a potential bomb under the RSB process?

We value credibility. It would undermine our credibility if the day came the RSB scheme became operational and we could not comply. My prediction is that no company will use the RSB sustainability scheme to certify biofuels supplied to the EU. Those companies that stay members and don't use the scheme will have something to explain. It is all about credibility.

Robert Vierhout is the secretary-general of eBIO, the European Bioethanol Fuel Association. Reach him at vierhout@ebio.org.