Biofuels and (ir)responsible innovation conference

Report frontpage
Cover Biofuels

For as long as biofuels have prominently appeared in EU policy, they have been a contested energy source. Crops such as jatropha have been hailed as ‘wonder crop’, only to experience an ‘extraordinary collapse’ within a decade. From the food vs. fuel discussion to indirect land use change, wicked problems have plagued biofuel developments and continue to provoke disagreement between societal actors. The impacts of biofuels’ tumultuous history have been felt particularly in the global South, where land grabbing and opportunistic behavior of investors have caused great social and ecological problems. Proponents of biofuels claim that this is all the more reason to continue with investments and innovation: new sources of biofuels, such as plant residues and algae, will eventually solve all our problems. Given the great uncertainties and past harms, however, these claims should not be accepted lightly, nor should we assume that all encountered problems are technology-specific.

Biofuels as a case study raise fundamental questions with regard to three themes: policy and governance, responsible innovation and sustainable development. Therefore, this conference was devoted to addressing these fundamental questions from a multidisciplinary perspective. These are the main findings:

Policy and governance
There are no successful projects that would legitimize a biofuel policy with explicit blending targets as the EU has at the moment. There is extensive documentation of the negative effects of this policy in countries such as Guatemala and Tanzania, and a host of difficulties associated with certification (which aims to ensure sustainable biofuel production through the use of certificates) have been identified. Therefore, participants of this conference objected to policies that require large amounts of biofuel imports from the global South, even if next-generation biofuels are to be developed. Namely, we found that institutional factors play an important role
regardless of the type/generation of biofuel. At the same time, there are severe material limits to the amount of biomass the earth can produce and therefore to the amount of biofuels we can produce.

Responsible innovation
Responsibility in the context of responsible innovation is highly distributed, not just among innovators and stakeholders but also among policy-makers and semi-independent research funders. All parties should be aware of their share of responsibility. It is important to be aware of the legitimizing power of terms like ‘responsible’ and ‘sustainable’, for these terms have often unjustly served to legitimize biofuel projects and policies.

Sustainable development
Determining biofuels’ sustainability is much more complex than was assumed at the height of the biofuel boom, and should incorporate a wide range of issues such as (in)equalities between the global North and global South, fair land acquisition, limitations to inputs required to produce biofuels, labor market impacts and the use of the biofuels (e.g. locally or for the global market).
While the notion of ‘sustainability’ widened among researchers as experience with biofuels grew, the same notion got reduced in most political discourses to avoiding carbon emissions.

Author name
Publication year