What's Behind the Packard Foundation's Focus on Sustainable Biofuels?

Biofuels were once heralded as a green solution that would help mitigate global climate change. Today, people acknowledge that there are several issues with biofuel production and that, in some cases, biofuels can actually increase greenhouse-gas emissions. This fact doesn't mean biofuel production is always unhelpful, but it does mean that sustainability standards are needed to ensure that biofuels help rather than hinder the fight against climate change. Fortunately, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation has made sustainability criteria for biofuels a key part of its Agriculture subprogram. (See Packard Foundation: Grants for Climate Change.)

Biofuels refer to an energy source derived from a living thing. Common sources of biofuel today include corn, sugar cane, soy, and animal fat. Growing biofuels can, in some cases, become an issue — leading to increased greenhouse-gas emissions, rising food prices, deforestation, and biodiversity loss. These problems generally occur when forests are cut down or other crops are swapped out to grow biofuel crops. Such issues can be avoided, however, by creating sustainability criteria. Such criteria may require impact assessments that determine the effects of biofuel production on ecosystems and communities. Criteria may also specify a limit on greenhouse emissions — saying, for example, that biofuel blends should emit 50% fewer emissions than traditional fossil fuels.

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation's Agriculture subprogram includes a Biofuels Policy and Markets portfolio that aims not only to promote sustainability standards for biofuels but also to promote their adoption by governments and corporations. Unlike the rest of the foundation's Agriculture subprogram, which is focused on the United States, the biofuel portfolio is international. Previous grants have gone to organizations such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and ActionAid USA. Grants made in 2012 and 2013 were generally in the range of $100,000 to $300,000 a piece.

The goal of Packard's Agriculture subprogram is to achieve a 20% reduction in projected net greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020 (using projected business-as-usual emissions as a baseline). Creating sustainability criteria for biofuels and promoting the inclusion of those criteria in government and corporate policies remain a major part of Packard's strategy. The biofuel industry, however, is relatively new, and sustainability criteria will likely have to evolve along with new technologies and best practices. (Read Director of Conservation and Science Walt Reid's IP profile.)