Some European countries have 90% of their forests biomass certified.

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Biomass Certifications: Finding a Common Sustainable Ground between NGOs and Businesses

By Grégoire Mazars       November 5, 2017

In recent years, the supply-chain of biomass energy has undergone major changes that  we seldom mention in sustainability textbooks. Much like we affix labels on products in supermarkets or LEED certifications on energy-efficient buildings, firms that use wood products now label their forests. While the governments and industries are still working out biomass certifications, the latter already provide a tremendous benchmark for sustainability of forests and a competitive edge for market players.

Biomass certification is the process whereby an independent third-party (or certification body) assesses the quality of a biomass stock destined for energy production, along with its supply-chain against strict sustainability criteria. These criteria cover a broad range of domains, from local forestry, agricultural and water bodies protection to greenhouse gas mitigation, human rights and economic development.

The share of biomass in the energy mix of developed countries is predicted to grow in importance to match ambitious greenhouse gases reduction goals. In order to comply with these goals and broader sustainability concerns, countries, unions, and international NGOs alike want to see a transparent and effective biomass certification market emerge.

Industries that harvest and commercialize biomass also hope to see that same market emerge, because biomass certifications can give them a competitive edge. Clients seek a tangible guarantee of effective sustainability when purchasing biomass-generated power. Unfortunately, producers often claim that their stocks are harvested sustainably without any strong basis for criteria.

A consumer in the United States who gets his power from a biomass plant that uses wood pallets produced in Africa which are shipped by a company in Europe can hardly know whether the forest that was cut to provide him with electricity will grow again -- until certifications come into existence on the market. Hence, a significant increase in the value of the products of the American energy producer, the African forest owner and the European shipper.

In order to give clear directions to this emerging market, governments are trying to limit the number of recognized biomass certifications. As an example, for  international forest certification, the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) is the only standard that covers  most of the world -- especially in Europe, when some countries have more than 90% of their forests PEFC-certified.

Recent mandatory and non-mandatory sustainability requirements in the European Union exist through the body of legislation known as the Renewable Energy Directive of 2009, also nicknamed “RED”. RED’s goal is to keep the E.U. on track to meet its renewable energy targets by 2020 and update these targets, which are part of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. They are the most common benchmark against which certifications like PEFC have to stand in order to comply (and be meaningful as sustainability benchmarks themselves).

Nonetheless, PEFC received critics early on by NGOs for being initiated by market participants with their own concerns on their mind; in author T. Cadman’s words, “a membership organisation [...], by forest owners and for forest owners”. While PEFC is a product of co-regulation, it is now considered by many not to be stringent enough to support governments in their journey to meet their emissions and sustainability targets.

Generally speaking, the discussion of the  drawbacks of biofuels has produced an image of an ambiguous, even mediocre energy source in the public’s mind. Many academics consider biofuels, and by extension the harvest of biomass, a potential threat to sustainability rather than an ally, and call for more stringent criteria than what the European Commission has laid out. The success of existing certifications relies on acceptance among customers that they do indeed represent sustainability -- especially when dealing with a form of energy as controversial as biomass.

Another standard named FSC was put forward by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) after the Rio Summit, but was deemed too naive of real industry conditions by market participants. In response, PEFC was created in 1999. Today both are dismissed by one side or the other of the NGOs-market argument.

The  quest for a sustainability standard that pleases all parties continues. Voluntary certification schemes are initiated by both governments and market participants, through what is called co-regulation. This is a hybrid regulatory model composed of market participants who create the certifications and issuing bodies while following legislation set by governments (the Commission in Europe’s case), which only can legitimize said certifications. Not only is the knowledge from industry players beneficiary, but it allows them to avoid binding legislations that would create conflicts with international trade agreements.

Solving this conundrum could help make biomass fulfil its potential as a clean energy source and regain its lost popularity in the public’s heart. For firms all along the biomass or wood outsourcing supply chain, sustainability efforts can finally be rewarded properly and make a difference in terms of customer acquisition.



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