Biofuels: an irresponsible innovation?
Biofuels were once introduced as a sustainable energy source, but became heavily criticised for their negative effects on the global poor and their food security.
This project’s conclusions:
- A broader conceptualisation of the values of well-being and sustainability is needed to arrive at a better governance of biofuels;
- The effects of producing two kinds of biofuels in Tanzania and India were found to be mainly negative;
- Irreversible negative impacts on local ecosystems and livelihood resources make sustainable long-term and large-scale production impossible;
- Nevertheless, questionable biofuel projects often continue because of vested interests;
- EU policies on sustainability certification do not fit rural contexts in the South well and often lead to more poverty.
A key starting point towards better governance, the interdisciplinary research team concludes, is adopting a broad and contextually relevant understanding of the values of sustainability and well-being. In the biofuels discourse well-being often gets narrowed down to ‘earning a minimum wage on plantations’ and sustainability to ‘avoiding CO2 emissions.’ Due to this narrow conceptualisation of these values there is not enough attention for issues such as sustained access to natural, social and spiritual resources for stable and independent livelihoods.
The project did not find any cases in which sustainable production of biofuels was possible for an extended period of time at a substantial scale. In fact, biofuel cultivation has often led to the degradation of local ecosystems and/or reduced access to public resources. The irreversibility of these negative impacts led the researchers to coin the term “social irreversibility” as a key problem. The researchers raise the question at which point such projects should be stopped because they are no longer responsible to continue. In practice, vested interests often prevent unsustainable biofuel projects from closing down. Projects that did close down due to lack financial viability were found to lack a proper exit stragegy, often leaving local people worse off than they were before the projects began.
Downsides of certification
There are also serious downsides to policies that rely on sustainability certification of (liquid) biofuels produced in the tropics for use in the EU. Certification systems such as the Dutch NTA8080 are not translated adequately to local rural contexts in the South. This means that substantial mismatches occur between what these norms are intended to achieve and what they accomplish in practice. This especially applies to smallholder-based agro-chains. Sometimes certification policies have had outright counterproductive results, leading to the further marginalisation of vulnerable actors such as smallholders and secondary land users.
Certification as a policy also does not deal with high and still growing energy consumption in western countries, as it evaluates only production, not production-consumption systems. This does not provide an appropriate response to the growing pressure on public natural resources in parts of the world with high poverty and food insecurity and fragile ecosystems, and avoids the pressing question of what level of energy consumption in western countries is sustainable, given our currently available technologies.
Tanzania and India
This project looked into two early second-generation biofuels in Tanzania and India. One was Jatropha curcas L. It was promised to grow well on 'marginal lands' and thus not compete with food crops. When this promise turned out to be empty, however, it was cultivated on more fertile lands, effectively continuing the food vs. fuel conflict. The other crop investigated in the project was Pongamia pinnata. While this tree was already well-known in the regions in India where it was cultivated as biofuel crop, farmers preferred to engage in more lucrative activities than cultivating Pongamia and collecting its seeds. Moreover, biofuel researchers had not taken into account the local soap-making industry that also used these seeds. The researched compared two Jatropha frontrunner countries – Tanzania and India – and their links to policies and investments from EU countries.
Biofuels are controversial. Policy makers and other stakeholders are struggling to find answers to how, and under which conditions sustainable development could be realized, and how to encourage sustainable biofuel practices through guidelines and norms.
Biofuels of the first generation were produced by using food crops. Oil was extracted from those crops, which was then turned into biodiesel or bioethanol. When the price of grain and fossil oil rose enormously in 2007-2008, biofuels became controversial – they were argued to cause food shortages that were especially affecting the poor.
Second-generation biofuels are made from non-food crops or organic waste. The hope of policy makers and other actors is that they will be, contrary to first generation biofuels, better for both people and planet. However, this project has shown that many of the assumptions and structural problems that plagued first-generation biofuels have remained unresolved in early second generation biofuels and will likely plague more advanced second-generation biofuels as well if not addressed properly.
second-generation biofuels, food security, sutainability, Tanzania, Tanzania, India, certification, smallholder farmers, well-being, European Union, implementation of biofuelsOfficial project title: