Environmental Management

, Volume 51, Issue 2, pp 291–306 | Cite as

Environmental Indicators of Biofuel Sustainability: What About Context?

  • Rebecca A. Efroymson
  • Virginia H. Dale
  • Keith L. Kline
  • Allen C. McBride
  • Jeffrey M. Bielicki
  • Raymond L. Smith
  • Esther S. Parish
  • Peter E. Schweizer
  • Denice M. Shaw


Indicators of the environmental sustainability of biofuel production, distribution, and use should be selected, measured, and interpreted with respect to the context in which they are used. The context of a sustainability assessment includes the purpose, the particular biofuel production and distribution system, policy conditions, stakeholder values, location, temporal influences, spatial scale, baselines, and reference scenarios. We recommend that biofuel sustainability questions be formulated with respect to the context, that appropriate indicators of environmental sustainability be developed or selected from more generic suites, and that decision makers consider context in ascribing meaning to indicators. In addition, considerations such as technical objectives, varying values and perspectives of stakeholder groups, indicator cost, and availability and reliability of data need to be understood and considered. Sustainability indicators for biofuels are most useful if adequate historical data are available, information can be collected at appropriate spatial and temporal scales, organizations are committed to use indicator information in the decision-making process, and indicators can effectively guide behavior toward more sustainable practices.


Baseline conditions Bioenergy Natural variability Spatial and temporal scales Supply chain Systems 



This paper is a collaboration among researchers who attended the workshop “Sustainability of Bioenergy Systems: Cradle to Grave,” sponsored by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL’s) Center for BioEnergy Sustainability and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). Researchers at ORNL were supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) under the Office of the Biomass Program. Jeffrey Bielicki’s contribution resulted from being a Weinberg Fellow at ORNL. We thank Mark Downing of ORNL and anonymous reviewers for comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript. We thank Charles Garten for conversations about relative feasibility of measurement of different indicators and Gangsheng Wang for discussions related to greenhouse-gas emissions from soil. Fred O’Hara provided technical editing of an earlier draft. ORNL is managed by the UT-Battelle, LLC, for DOE under contract DE-AC05-00OR22725. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the USEPA or DOE.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC (outside the USA) 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rebecca A. Efroymson
    • 1
  • Virginia H. Dale
    • 1
  • Keith L. Kline
    • 1
  • Allen C. McBride
    • 1
  • Jeffrey M. Bielicki
    • 2
  • Raymond L. Smith
    • 3
  • Esther S. Parish
    • 1
  • Peter E. Schweizer
    • 1
  • Denice M. Shaw
    • 4
  1. 1.Center for BioEnergy Sustainability, Environmental Sciences DivisionOak Ridge National LaboratoryOak RidgeUSA
  2. 2.Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public AffairsUniversity of MinnesotaMinneapolisUSA
  3. 3.National Risk Management Research Laboratory, Office of Research and DevelopmentU.S. Environmental Protection AgencyCincinnatiUSA
  4. 4.National Center for Environmental Assessment, Office of Research and DevelopmentU.S. Environmental Protection AgencyWashingtonUSA

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