Can sustainability standards promote win-win opportunities? An exploration of the potential outcomes of large-scale compliance with Bonsucro sustainability standards
Society faces the challenge of meeting growing demand for food, fuel, and other materials while mitigating climate change and sustaining critical environmental services and biodiversity. The urgency of this challenge has motivated significant investments in the development and promotion of sustainability standards for key global agricultural commodities. However, the assumption that adoption of sustainability standards will result in conservation benefits has not been well tested at the large scale. Here, we address this knowledge gap by evaluating current Bonsucro standards, developed to promote the sustainability of the global sugarcane sector. We apply global, spatially-explicit data on current extent, yield, and management practices to test the potential effectiveness of Bonsucro certification as a policy mechanism to improve yields while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions, freshwater availability and quality, and biodiversity. We combine these data with future scenarios of demand-driven increases in sugarcane production under various levels of compliance with Bonsucro standards.
We find that large-scale Bonsucro certification has the potential to increase sugarcane production to the 50th percentile of achievable yields, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and improving water availability and quality. Additionally, we show that Bonsucro certification standards largely protect natural ecosystems from sugarcane expansion, resulting in the preservation of carbon stocks and biodiversity in these critical ecosystems. Yet, we identify key shortcomings of current sugarcane standards, including increased pastureland displacement and the potential for detrimental indirect effects. Based on our findings, we highlight a number of potential improvements that could optimize conservation outcomes. This type of global geospatial analysis serves as a general framework for evaluating and improving the potential conservation benefits of both existing and future certification programs.