Environmental impacts associated with the use of fossil fuels, rising prices, potential limitations in supply and concerns about regional and national security are driving the development and use of biomass for bioenergy, biofuels and bioproducts. However, the use of biomass does not automatically imply that its production, conversion and use are sustainable. In order to operationalize sustainability assessments of biomass systems, it is crucial to identify critical criteria, but keep their number and measurement at a manageable level. The selection of these criteria can vary depending on individual"s expertise, geographical region where they work, and spatial scale they are focused on. No clear consensus has yet emerged on what experts consider as critical indicators of sustainability. Objectives of this paper were to analyze how key experts perceive the 35 sustainability criteria for bioenergy found in emerging sustainability assessment frameworks and to identify levels of agreement and uncertainty. Experts were asked to rate the criteria for attributes of relevance, practicality, reliability, and importance. Perceptions of the importance of the 35 criteria varied among the experts surveyed. Only two criteria, energy balance and greenhouse gas balance, were perceived as critical by more than half of the respondents. Social criteria and locally applied criteria were generally ranked low for all four attributes. Seven of the 12 criteria scored as most important focused on environmental issues, four were social and only one was economic. Of the 12 most important criteria, seven were ranked low in practicality and reliability indicating that mechanisms to assess a number of important criteria need to be developed. The spatial scale the experts worked at and their profession explained most of the differences in importance ranking between experts, while regional focus had minimal effect. Criteria that were ranked low for importance, were characterized by a lack of consensus, suggesting the need for further debate regarding their inclusion in sustainability assessments. Outcomes of the survey provide a foundation for further discussions and development of sustainability assessments for bioenergy systems and may also provide a basis for assessing individual bioenergy projects within their specific geographic, ecological, societal, and technological context and scale.

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Thomas Buchholz
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State University of New York, College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry (SUNY-ESF), Department of Forest and Natural Resource Management
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Thomas Buchholz
Valerie A. Luzadis
Timothy A. Volk
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