This paper connects the science of sustainability theory with applied aspects of sustainability deployment. A suite of 35 sustainability indicators spanning six environmental, three economic, and three social categories has been proposed for comparing the sustainability of bioenergy production systems across different feedstock types and locations. A recent demonstration-scale switchgrass-to-ethanol production system located in East Tennessee is used to assess the availability of sustainability indicator data and associated measurements for the feedstock production and logistics portions of the biofuel supply chain. Knowledge pertaining to the available indicators is distributed within a hierarchical decision tree framework to generate an assessment of the overall sustainability of this no-till switchgrass production system relative to two alternative business-as-usual scenarios of unmanaged pasture and tilled corn production. The relative contributions of the social, economic and environmental information are determined for the overall trajectory of this bioenergy system’s sustainability under each scenario. Within this East Tennessee context, switchgrass production shows potential for improving environmental and social sustainability trajectories without adverse economic impacts, thereby leading to potential for overall enhancement in sustainability within this local agricultural system. Given the early stages of cellulosic ethanol production, it is currently difficult to determine quantitative values for all 35 sustainability indicators across the entire biofuel supply chain. This case study demonstrates that integration of qualitative sustainability indicator ratings may increase holistic understanding of a bioenergy system in the absence of complete information.
Potential global biodiversity impacts from near-term gasoline production are compared to biofuel, a renewable liquid transportation fuel expected to substitute for gasoline in the near term (i.e., from now until c. 2030). Petroleum exploration activities are projected to extend across more than 5.8 billion ha of land and ocean worldwide (of which 3.1 bllion is on land), much of which is in remote, fragile terrestrial ecosystems or off-shore oil fields that would remain relatively undisturbed if not for interest in fossil fuel production. Future biomass production for biofuels is projected to fall within 2.0 billion ha of land, most of which is located in areas already impacted by human activities. A comparison of likely fuel-source areas to the geospatial distribution of species reveals that both energy sources overlap with areas with high species richness and large numbers of threatened species. At the global scale, future petroleum production areas intersect more than double the area and a higher total number of threatened species than future biofuel production. Energy options should be developed to optimize provisioning of ecosystems services while minimizing negative effects, which requires information about potential impacts on critical resources. Energy conservation and identifying and effectively protecting habitats with high-concervation value are critical first steps toward protecting biodiversity under any fuel production scenario.
Despite a rapid worldwide expansion of the biofuel industry, there is a lack of consensus within the scientific community about the potential of biofuels to reduce reliance on petroleum and decrease greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Although life cycle assessment provides a means to quantify these potential benefits and environmental impacts, existing methods limit direct comparison within and between different biofuel systems because of inconsistencies in performance metrics, system boundaries, and underlying parameter values. There is a critical need for standardized life-cycle methods, metrics, and tools to evaluate biofuel systems based on performance of feedstock production and biofuel conversion at regional or national scales, as well as for estimating the net GHG mitigation of an individual biofuel production system to accommodate impending GHG-intensity regulations and GHG emissions trading. Predicting the performance of emerging biofuel systems (e.g., switchgrass cellulosic ethanol) poses additional challenges for life cycle assessment due to lack of commercial-scale feedstock production and conversion systems. Continued political support for the biofuel industry will be influenced by public perceptions of the contributions of biofuel systems towards mitigation of GHG emissions and reducing dependence on petroleum for transportation fuels. Standardization of key performance metrics such as GHG emissions mitigation and net energy yield are essential to help inform both public perceptions and public policy.