This is the third post in a series covering BSR at the Rio+20 Summit. The first post reflects on accomplishments in CSR over the past 20 years, and the second discusses corporate strategies for human rights. The fourth post extends the "future of fuels" discussion to include the Brazilian perspective. The fifth post compares Rio+20 and the G20 Leaders' Summit.

When is a gallon just a gallon?

Almost never, it turns out—at least if one happens to be talking about the total life cycle impacts of transportation fuels.

The impacts of energy and transportation on issues ranging from climate change to human rights have become increasingly prominent over the past few years. These impacts present a complex set of challenges—as well as opportunities—for companies across the entire value chain. Some companies are making substantial progress towards efficiency improvements, and others are developing and promoting alternative or low-carbon fuels and technologies, including advanced biofuels and hybrid technologies.

But what are we to do about the large amount of fossil fuels that we will continue to use for at least 20-40 more years? Petroleum-based fuels are likely to remain the standard option for purchasers globally, and indeed, the fastest-growing petroleum segments are oil sands, heavy oil, and other resources that have relatively greater environmental impacts (though possibly more social or economic benefits). At the same time, the emergence of large-scale alternatives, such as biofuels, have come with their own sustainability impacts–such as land use change and biodiversity.

Just as government representatives will be considering comprehensive new Sustainable Development Goals next week in Rio, BSR sees the need for a more comprehensive approach to the future of energy based on the total life cycle sustainability impacts (economic, social, and environmental) of different fuels. 

In 2011 BSR launched the Future of Fuels initiative, which brings together critical players from the corporate, NGO, and public sectors in a series of facilitated dialogues, supported by research and designed to find collaborative pathways to enhance the sustainability of available and emerging transportation fuel choices. Our initial focus has been on North America, and we have brought together key fuel purchasers such as Coca-Cola, Nike, UPS, Walmart, and the U.S. Department of Defense, producers, such as Suncor, and cross-sector collaborators from NREL, Stanford University, the World Resources Institute, the Nature Conservancy, and others to consider the following questions:

  • What is the market outlook for various fossil-based and alternative transportation fuels for the next 20 years and beyond?
  • What are the total life cycle sustainability impacts (economic, social, and environmental) of different fuels?
  • How can major fuel purchasers, energy producers, governments, and others collaborate to develop better fuel choices?

During Rio+20, we will explore the potential to bring the Future of Fuels initiative to South America with new company and non-company participants and a greater focus on biofuels. To this end, we are hosting a Sustainable Future side-event with GE Brazil and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro/COPPE on June 19 during which we will:

  1. Share information and facilitate discussion on the approach and early findings of Future of Fuels research in  North America
  2. Gauge the interest of company and non-company participants in joining a Future of Fuels-South America initiative that would bring together critical players from the corporate, NGO, and public sectors to advance the tenets of Future Fuels while taking into account key regional issues.

Participants in the invitation-only event will include major industry players, from large-scale fuel users and transport providers to energy producers, and selected academics/researchers, NGOs, and governments that can offer credible, constructive perspectives and information on the myriad of proposed issues on the agenda. Stay tuned for a report out from the Rio meetings, and in the meantime, you can contact me for more information.