Sugarcane standard in need of tighter CO2 target

The first comprehensive sustainability standard for sugarcane has been issued for consultation. Unlike most feedstock standards, it sets targets rather than specifying better management practices. But its carbon target seems lax.

The Better Sugarcane Initiative (BSI) launched a draft standard in February that commits the sugar supply chain to sustainability targets rather than focusing on best management practices.

A 60-day public consultation on the standard will be held from 1 March,1 during which time its use will also be piloted at farms and mills.

The standard aims to address concerns over the environmental impact of expanding sugarcane production. Some 18 million hectares - an area almost the size of the UK - are planted to the crop worldwide. This figure is expected to grow by up to 5 million hectares over the next ten years, mainly to meet rising demand for biofuels. Concerns over the crop’s expansion stem from its high water use and fears it could lead to deforestation.

BSI was set up by WWF and the International Finance Corporation in 2005 to address these concerns. It is now a not-for-profit UK company whose members include Coca-Cola, British Sugar, Tate & Lyle, BP, Shell, sugar trader ED & F Man and the Brazilian sugarcane industry association UNICA.

But progress towards developing the standard has been slow (ENDS Report 390, p 27 ). The main reason is that BSI’s standard uses a different approach than standards produced for other crops. It is metric-based and sets targets in contrast to palm oil and soy standards, which have been process-based and mainly require farmers to adopt better management practices. One process-based standard for sugarcane suppliers has already been launched by biofuel firm Greenergy (ENDS Report 405, pp 25-26 ).

David Willers, BSI’s project manager, said: "Our standard will measure the actual impact of production, and that’s something a process standard can’t do. If a farm doesn’t come up to the bar, they’ll have to look at what better management practices they can use to reach it."

Under the standard, farms and mills must undergo third-party auditing to see if they meet a range of criteria. The draft’s environmental criteria include water use, deforestation, soil nutrient levels, soil acidification and impact on global warming.

On greenhouse gases, auditors of farms and plantations must examine emissions from a long list of sources including land clearance, cane burning, and fertiliser manufacture and use. The only emissions not listed are those from indirect land-use change as expanding sugarcane plantations displace existing agricultural production.

Sugar milling tends to have a negative carbon footprint because the mills are powered by burning bagasse, the pulp left after the juice has been squeezed from sugarcane.

The standard says farming and milling activities cannot cumulatively emit more than 0.4 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of sugar produced. The target seems low given that these levels are already being achieved. Tate & Lyle claims its sugar-related emissions, from the plantation to the shop floor, were 0.43t CO2 /t in 2007.

ENDS spoke to two BSI members who said they expect the figure to be tightened after the consultation. Emissions of 0.4t CO2 could be met easily, they said, although neither wished to be named.

But Clare Wenner, a consultant to British Sugar and a member of the BSI’s steering committee, said it was important to set baseline targets that everyone can meet.

"If you set a challenging target from day one you’ll end up with arguments from global producers. Sugar used for biofuels will have to meet tight greenhouse gas criteria under the EU’s renewable energy Directive, but this is the only way to get food users around the table too. You don’t want to put them off from the start."

The BSI’s water use standard appears much better. It says farms must use less than 100 kilograms of water per kilogram of sugar produced. This figure should include rainwater and irrigation. According to the Water Footprint Network, it normally takes 175kg of water to produce a kilogram of commercial cane.

The BSI’s David Willers said the environmental standards are likely to change following the consultation and pilots. "I expect we’ll have serious discussions over whether the targets are tight enough and whether we can actually have universal targets or need regional variance," he said. This is especially true for water use; Asian planters rely far less on irrigation to water crops than South American ones.

The standard will be put out for a second public consultation later this year and is expected to be adopted in November. A certification system is also being developed.

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