Multi-stakeholder certifications come out on top in NGO biofuels studies

Jatropha and pineapple intercropping in Guatemala © Matt Rudolf, Roundtable on S
Jatropha and pineapple intercropping in Guatemala © Matt Rudolf, Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials
Two important reports recently came out from WWF Germany and IUCN Netherlands seeking to compare the quality and performance of different biofuels certification schemes. The result: Multi-stakeholder standards such as those in ISEAL perform better than a wide group of others that were set up simply to comply with EU regulations. The report authors urge companies to move towards the credible standards and away from cheaper, low performing schemes.

The two reports, Searching for Sustainability and Betting on Best Quality, produced a number of significant findings, chief amongst them the conclusion that multi-stakeholder schemes such as those who are members of ISEAL  generally provide a higher level of sustainability performance and use more credible processes. Those schemes that are industry-driven tend to be weaker overall in content, and provide less assurance that they are contributing to sustainability.

ISEAL brought authors of these reports, along with representatives from three ISEAL member organisations that were analysed - Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials, Bonsucro and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil - together in a webinar to share the results. Click here to access a recording of the webinar.

One of most compelling findings from both reports is the correlation between a multi-stakeholder approach and a wider and deeper coverage of the essential social and environmental issues relating to biofuels. RSB, Bonsucro and RSPO also appear to have more robust and transparent systems, scoring higher than non-multi-stakeholder schemes in areas such as assurance, traceability and governance. Overall the reports provide solid independent evidence of the improved performance that comes from following good, credible practices. While all schemes have room for improvement, those standards that are mission-driven appear to be superior at implementing standards and delivering results.

The EU Renewable Energy Directive (RED), adopted in 2009, has been crucial in shaping the dynamics of biofuels certification, by setting out sustainability requirements and recognising various voluntary certification schemes as proof of compliance. A proliferation of many different standards has increases demands for clarity about how different schemes compare, and this is the context in which these two reports were produced.

Both reports are consistent in their assessment of the effects of EU RED, finding that the legislation is too weak to ensure that the accepted biofuels schemes contribute to sustainability objectives. According to the reports, a shortfall in mandatory requirements in the EU RED has created significant disparity across the certification schemes. Simply put, being recognised in the EU RED does not equate to being a certification scheme for truly sustainable biofuels.

RSB came out as the top performer in both studies, illustrating the greatest breadth of sustainability criteria. In the WWF study, RSPO was the second highest ranking scheme, followed by a next tier of schemes including Bonsucro. In the IUCN report, RSB received the highest scores and RSPO and Bonsucro were classified in next tier of good quality schemes.

In his presentation, Sebastien Haye of RSB cited the importance of these reports for validating RSB's efforts to build a standard through an inclusive process and pointed to the organisation’s efforts to collaborate with other credible standards. Melissa Chin of RSPO voiced support for the useful guidance these reports provide to standards systems about their strengths and weaknesses, but also pointed to RSPO’s new principles and criteria, which were not reflected in the IUCN rankings. Bonsucro came out strongly as a scheme making concerted efforts to assess its impacts, something that was picked up on by Bonsucro's Natasha Schwarzbach, when she explained the uniqueness of the outcome-based scheme that does not prescribe management practices.

A major finding from IUCN was that certification schemes designed solely to comply with EU RED are weaker than their multi-stakeholder counterparts, and in fact pose a threat to the sustainability objectives of the latter. Marieke Harteveld stressed the importance of looking beyond content to determine a scheme's credibility. She emphasised that on paper many of the schemes look the same in how they address social and environmental issues, but on the ground many actually fail due to poor practices for verifying compliance or serious gaps in their management systems.

IUCN noted as well the high industry uptake of cheaper, poorer performing schemes. WWF and IUCN both called for more incentives to drive biofuels companies to the more credible standards.

ISEAL is very pleased that these reports have been produced and shed some light on a very complex sector. For the last few years we have been actively lobbying governments and businesses to recognise only those schemes that follow credible practices and deliver proven sustainability results. A multi-stakeholder approach, a mission rooted in sustainability, and a commitment to credible systems are hallmarks of what it means to be an ISEAL member. We are encouraged that these reports reinforce the value of these characteristics for high-quality biofuels schemes.