Measuring greenness

How do we reframe the argument for biofuels to make it more compelling? Perhaps it can be done by expanding the discussion on building a green economy for tomorrow.
By Susanne Retka Schill | October 08, 2012

How do we reframe the argument for biofuels to make it more compelling? Perhaps it can be done by expanding the discussion on building a green economy for tomorrow. Jody Endres and  Daniel Szewczyk from the Energy Biosciences Institute recently wrote a piece for the University of Illinois’ Farmdoc Daily that gives a rationale for more work on green economy metrics. 

They cite a USDA report that finds the U.S. will need 527 new biorefineries, requiring an investment of $168 billion to meet the renewable energy goals set forth in the RFS, the California low carbon fuel standard and the EU Renewable Energy Directive. (The relatively large number reflects the smaller scale required for biomass-based facilities wanting to minimize feedstock transportation costs.)

They succinctly summarize the dilemma the biofuels industry faces. On the positive side, there are the environmental benefits of biofuels, energy security and rural development. Those positives are offset by a backlash to the point that biofuels advocates fear the loss of support from Congress and the public: “A backlash against the biofuels industry is mounting from myriad directions, however, including the food versus fuel debate and carbon accounting,” the authors say.

They continue to concisely summarize the issue, but first say they aren’t going to deal with “the argument that biofuels unfairly shoulder in the food security debate the burden of dysfunctional food distribution systems and inefficient dietary choices.” Nicely put.

They then go on to suggest “supporters' best hope in the battle for funding and biofuels' public image is perhaps the potential for creating a green economy in rural America.” What is lacking, they say, is a solid framework for what “greenness” means. How do you measure greenness? They continue to lay out recent developments and the need for academia to get serious about figuring out how to measure the impacts, not only environmentally, but also on the social network. 

Sustainability is one term that is increasingly used. Europe has incorporated sustainability in its biofuels standards. As that concept has evolved, sustainability now includes three legs – environmental, economic and social. For the businessman, yes, that means projects must be economically viable – ie, make money. That must be balanced with considering both the environmental and social impacts. Like the need for profits, the environmental concerns are well known to the public. While the social impact is often boiled down to providing jobs, I think it will become much more sophisticated than that. 

The authors point out that federal agencies are beginning to look for “social impact metrics that tie to environmental achievements for project funding decisions.” Legislation is beginning to require impact statements that go beyond environmental impacts. The EBI authors give several examples of emerging metrics, saying all are lacking in some regard.

The authors conclude: “While emerging standards consider individual elements of environmental and social sustainability of bioenergy projects to varying degrees, development of green economy metrics must improve on these nascent individualized metrics by integrating environmental impacts into calculations of socio-economic benefits within a biorefinery's ‘shed of influence.’ No public or private bioenergy-specific standard currently achieves this integration. This includes answering such questions as: how do biorefineries build intellectual capacity within a community by attracting and retaining a green-educated workforce? How do cellulosic cropping systems improve water quality, which in turn may reduce water purification costs for municipalities? How can improved habitat for animals and birds increase tourism and recreation opportunities? Do practices that sequester carbon enhance the income of farmers, which in turn is spent within the community?”

It would behoove the ethanol industry to pay attention to these discussions and get involved at some level. These won’t be the first discussions on sustainability, of course. There are global sustainability frameworks that have had U.S. stakeholder involvement. While sustainability criteria may not become regulatory here, they are part of the EU regulations for the biofuel industry. I sometimes wonder if sustainability discussions could become a forum to go beyond oppositional behaviors. Rather than vilifying each other and trying to catch the American public’s attention with claims that stretch the truth (both sides being guilty), focus on sustainability, on how to build a greener economy that will last for generations.