Bioenergy does not automatically imply that its production, conversion and distribution is sustainable.
Sustainability is a dynamic and debated concept. Sustainability refers to improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of the earth’s supporting ecosystems. From a pragmatic point of view, sustainability is the capacity to create, test, and maintain adaptive capability. Two common views of sustainability are that sustainability consists of the social, economic, and ecological spheres and these should be balanced equally or that sustainability has nested spheres that are constrained by ecological limits. These views are shown as overlapping economic, environmental and social spheres (Figure A). Alternatively, the spheres of technology, economic, social and environment sequentially limit or constrain one another; with the environment imposing the limits on growth and development. Furthermore, sustainability rests on a platform of good governance (Figure B).
The sustainability of bioenergy production is of concern due to the potential negative effects on biodiversity, a conflict with food production, changes in land-use patterns and practice, and emission of pollutants such as greenhouse gases.
The sustainability framework engages with stakeholders along the value chain to define a common vision of sustainability; with associated principles, criteria and indicators. It requires multi-stakeholder active participation so that a common goal can be defined and bioenergy projects can be assessed, managed and monitored using defined sustainability indicators.
The Sustainability Framework involves an objectives-led integrated assessment. It considers the social, ecological and economic issues in the assessment and is led by a common vision of stakeholders in the planning process so that sustainability is the desired outcome, rather than to prevent or mitigate potential environmental impacts.
The planning for sustainability framework is shown below. In the case of a new project where no development planning has yet been undertaken then only Task I should be completed (followed by Task IV for any project). This task will ensure that the project is planned at the very onset with sustainability as its main goal. The outcome will be a set of principles, criteria and indicators that can be used throughout the project’s life span to ensure that sustainability is achieved. For any project for which there currently are development plans (i.e. there are current infrastructure) in place then Tasks I to III must be completed as a minimum, in sequence, for the process of planning for sustainability to be effective. Task I forms the foundation for assessments or further work in subsequent tasks (II – IV) and must always precede any assessment. Any assessment conducted without this foundation will not deliver a project with sustainability as its focus, but merely a project in which the prevention, trade-off and mitigation of potential environmental (social, economic and ecological) impacts might have been identified and addressed.
It is inevitable that for social and economic gain (as is the required outcome for any development) there will be a trade-off with biophysical or ecological components. However, when planning for sustainability the trade-off decisions must not compromise the fundamental objective. As the sustainability framework uses a participatory approach, all trade-offs and compromises identified must be discussed openly, justified and the most desirable option agreed upon.