EU sustainability schemes fall short of safeguarding rural livelihoods

Published on Food Crisis and the Global Land Grab, October 27, 2011.

BOGOR, Indonesia (19 October, 2011)_ The voluntary certification schemes recently approved by the European Commission to verify compliance with the sustainability requirements of the EU’s renewable energy policy have serious shortcomings for safeguarding rural livelihoods in developing countries. This places critical social sustainability issues such as land ownership and access, labor rights and food security at risk, says a recent report by the Center for International Forestry Research. 

“Emphasis of the EU Renewable Energy Directive on environmental sustainability has seriously undermined the interests of developing countries in the potential rural livelihood benefits of the emerging biofuel industry by enabling fuel lacking any social sustainability to qualify for renewable energy targets,” said Laura German, CIFOR scientist and lead author of Social sustainability of EU-approved voluntary schemes for biofuels: implications for rural livelihoods.

In recent years, fluctuating oil prices and concerns about climate change have led to a renewed commitment to renewable energy, particularly among industrialized countries. The European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive (EU RED) was adopted in 2009, mandating each member state to ensure that at least 10 percent of fuel consumed in the transport sector is derived from renewable sources (including biofuels) by 2020.

While this has been heralded as an important step towards environmental sustainability, recent research by CIFOR and others suggests that the expansion of biofuel crops – particularly in developing countries – often leads to deforestation, high carbon emissions from land use change and negative social impacts for customary land users such as loss of land and labor rights and threats to food security … //

… Since companies are free to choose between schemes, this leads to a situation where there are no market barriers for socially-unsustainable biofuels. The costs associated with compliance with more stringent schemes is also likely to attract greater numbers of operators to those schemes that set the bar at the lowest possible level to guarantee market entry (e.g., focusing on environmental issues alone).  These biofuels can therefore be fully certified and their use legitimized, by the EU RED’s current disregard of social sustainability issues.

Different from many industrialized countries, weak governance and social and environmental safeguards in developing countries are likely to undermine the ability to ensure that the gaps in these voluntary schemes are effectively dealt with through national regulations.

Thus, the key rationale put forward by developing countries to rationalize the generous fiscal and non-fiscal incentives provided to the fledgling biofuel industry – namely, the economic stimulus it promises to inject into rural economies, is largely in jeopardy.

The rapid positioning of industry and multi-stakeholder processes to comply with EU RED sustainability criteria, and the efforts by some voluntary schemes to water down their original standards in line with the Directive, suggests that policies within consumer markets hold great potential to shape sector performance globally.

Yet the low bar set by EU RED for social sustainability and the variability in its treatment among approved voluntary schemes point to the urgent need to expand its scope to safeguard rural livelihoods in the global South. (full text).

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