BSR publishes sustainability report, seeks public comments

By Erin Voegele | October 18, 2012

BSR, a nonprofit membership organization focused on consulting, research and cross-sector collaboration, has released a new report that assesses the sustainability impacts of commercial transportation fuels, as well as the market outlook for a range of fuels. The report, titled “The Sustainability Impacts of Fuel,” is the first in BSR’s Future of Fuels initiative, and aims to help large-scale fuel purchasers make decisions that lessen environmental and social impacts while enhancing growth and development. The report addresses six categories of fuel, including gas/diesel, natural gas, biofuel, hydrogen, electric and greater efficiency.

According to BSR, world energy consumption is expected to increase by nearly 40 percent by 2030. In the report, the organization says that the sources and structures of transportation fuel systems will change radically during this time, often in contradictory ways. “On one hand, the production of renewable and hyper-efficient energy is rising fast, with wind, solar, and biofuels evolving from nascent technologies just a few years ago to mature and commercially competitive entrants today,” said BSR in the report. “On the other, the rapid growth in developing economies, fueled by energy-intensive industries and mobility needs, is driving a quest to uncover the cheapest energy wherever it is found, and often without a full consideration of sustainability impacts.”

Regarding biofuels, the analysis said that the introduction of advanced biofuels and electric vehicles represents significant potential for low-carbon, sustainable fuels. The report also points out that it has, in some cases, been difficult to determine exactly what the sustainability impacts of biofuels are. “Some impacts are relatively well-understood, such as the comparative life-cycle GHG emissions of different unconventional oil feedstocks (though ongoing technology improvements are mitigating many of the differences between conventional and unconventional resources). Other cases prove more difficult to generalize—for example, the evaluation of whether diesel derived from bio-based feedstocks is more water-intensive than that from petroleum,” BSR said in the report. “Still other impacts are not understood at all or are disputed, such as the relative socioeconomic impacts that might result from a large-scale energy project in two different underdeveloped and sensitive regions. Many sustainability impacts have temporal, geographic, and other characteristics, and so it is difficult to classify the significance of impacts without objectively defined criteria and qualifications.”

Using its own metric to measure greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions savings for conventional biofuels, BSR’s analysis determined that most biofuels offer an advantage over fossil fuels. Sugarcane ethanol was shown to have one of the highest GHG savings levels, with 70 to 143 percent emissions reduction. Wheat ethanol, and sugar beet ethanol were shown to have positive GHG reduction ratings, as did most corn ethanol. Ethanol producing using agricultural or forestry residues had a GHG reduction rating of up to about 90 percent. BSR also gave biogas produced from manure a strong rating, of up to a 174 percent reduction.  The range for different biodiesel feedstocks varied greatly, with biodiesel from soybeans ranging from a 110 percent reduction to a nearly 20 percent increase. BSR’s report also addresses water consumption, and several other sustainability factors.

The report outlines several findings, the first of which notes that knowledge of total sustainability impacts of fuels has numerous gaps. “There are many reasons we continue to lack a holistic understanding of fuels, not the least of which is the simple fact that the issues are extraordinarily complex and varied across fuel sources,” said BSR in the report. The analysis’s second finding said it is critical to address issues on a systematic level to avoid unintended consequences and/or the promotion of fuel solutions that fail to deliver the desired impact. The analysis’s third finding stressed that addressing system issues related to our fuel supply will require long-term perspective that is often at odds with the short-term requirements of business and politics. Fourth, BSR’s report noted that while advanced technologies, such as those related to biofuels, are taking off, they still require major investment and policy support to become commercially significant. Fifth, BSR expects oil to remain the driving force in fuel markets. However, the sixth finding is that there is great certainty that there will be significant diversification of the fuel supply. Seventh, all fuels can benefit from increased efficiency and best practices in production and consumption. In addition, BSR’s eighth finding noted that value chain transparency and collaboration offers a high potential for innovation. Finally, the organization stressed that the business and government sectors need to work together more creatively to develop effective long-term energy policy.

BSR is requesting feedback on its report. “The Future of Fuels working group has published this report with the aim of bringing together a wide variety of issues and sources to describe the state of knowledge about the sustainability of road transportation fuels,” said the organization in the analysis. “It is a work in progress, and we welcome additional input.”

Specifically, BSR is seeking comments on what issues need to be more accurately depicted, what additional tools and resources should be included, and what are the most important and innovative ways to alleviate the negative impacts of each fuel identified in the paper, and what are the best methods to enhance the positive impacts. “If you have input on any of these items or feel there are nuances that should be better registered, we would like to hear from you,” BSR said. Those who wish to submit a comment can do so by emailing [email protected]