The biofuel promise: examining sustainability and policy expectations around liquid biofuels

31 December 2019
Maddalena Ripa

Biofuels represent a ‘wicked problem’ (i.e. a problem characterized by a diversity of conflicting values at stake and associated with high uncertainties) and have triggered sharply contested views in the policy arena. The heterogeneous methods used to measure compliance of biofuels with sustainability criteria, as well as the changing regulatory frameworks and moving targets have created a substantial confusion.

In MAGIC, biofuels have been framed both as a technological innovation—referring to the sustainable use of biomass to produce energy (mostly fuels)—and as a promise, providing a way out of the nexus policy impasse.

First, biofuels are framed as innovations potentially offering win-win solutions to the double problem of reducing the consumption of fossil fuels (to improve energy security and/or mitigate climate change) and supporting economic growth (and all the activities dependent on liquid fuels that cannot run on electricity). Over the last twenty years, several assessment methods have been employed to investigate biofuels from a sustainability viewpoint, such as energy analyses, life cycle assessment, carbon and water footprints (Azadi et al., 2017). These approaches, however, are usually based on just one or a limited set of indicators (e.g. GHG emissions and energy efficiency) that can be reduced to a single index (UNEP, 2017). Even when a larger set of indicators are provided, the protocol of analysis dislocates these indicators from any specific context (Bridge, 2001; Levidow, 2013). For example, questions of uneven spatial distribution in terms of where biomass has come from, which regions have borne the negative impacts, which ones benefited, and alternative techniques of production are not typically included in ‘sustainability assessment’. As a result of the lack of a more holistic picture and despite a large amount of studies, controversy has historically surrounded the assessment of the sustainability of biofuels and uncertainty has been growing in relation to their possible benefits and risks.

In MAGIC, we developed an analytical framework to characterize and contextualize in quantitative terms the performance of biofuel systems (see Ripa et al. 2020). This framework derives from the integration of three scientific fields—energetics (Ostwald, 1907), relational analysis (Rosen, 2005), and the flow-fund model of Georgescu-Roegen  (Georgescu-Roege, 1975)—and helps to tame the confusion about the performance of biofuels. Figure 1 presents the four relevant perspectives on biofuels of the proposed framework:

  1. The social factors determining their requirement on the demand side—why do we want to produce biofuels?
  2. The internal technical and economic constraints affecting their mode of production on the supply side—how can we produce biofuels?
  3. The external biophysical constraints limiting their production—what are the material limits imposed by the availability of natural resources?
  4. The level of openness of the biofuel system referring to imports being specifically used to overcome local limits (thus externalizing the requirement of natural resources and technical production factors).


Figure 1. The relations over the factors relevant for studying the feasibility, viability, desirability and level of openness (externalization) of biofuel systems. Source: Ripa et al. (2020).


The framework aims to check the quality of energy strategies in terms of desirability, viability and feasibility by comparing the technical characteristics of the energy supply system against the specific characteristics of the social-ecological systems expected to use them (Figure 2). Therefore, this analytical framework enhances the diversity of the quantitative information used in the process of decision-making. Rather than looking for the ‘best course of action’ or ‘optimal solution’ in relation to technical processes described “in general” and out of context, our approach allows a special tailoring of the definition of both the purpose of the analysis and the resulting characterization of performance.


Figure 2. The characteristics of the metabolic node – the supply reflecting the characteristics of the material-formal-efficient cause) vs the characteristics of the metabolic niche – the demand reflecting the characteristics of the efficient-final cause. 


The second framing used in MAGIC is that of biofuels as a promise. In this case, what matters is the idea of biofuels as an environmentally-friendly and renewable way of producing fuels. The EU has consistently supported biofuels, despite controversies, criticisms and even discontinuities in political support. Hence, in this analysis we examined why some ‘solutions’ persist, even when they have persistently failed once materialized.

Our results show that, in spite of scientific criticisms regarding the viability of biofuels, the European Commission has maintained its support for their development through a continuous adjustment of expectations (i.e. why producing biofuels) - energy security, reduction of GHG emissions, employment in agriculture, improvement of fuel quality, contribution to the circular economy and avoidance of sunk costs to investors - and targets in the various policies regarding biofuels (Cadillo-Benalcazar et al. 2020). Our analysis challenges the plausibility of biofuels’ policies and concludes that, depending on their specific legitimate perspectives, social actors may first identify a convenient target to set (or preserve) and then select a fitting justification (from among the many possible ones) to support that target. Therefore, achieving biofuel targets has become a justification in itself (Cadillo-Benalcazar et al. 2020).



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Cadillo-Benalcazar, J., Bukkens, S.G.F., Ripa, M., Giampietro, M., 2020. Quantitative story-telling reveals inconsistencies in the European Union’s biofuels policy. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. Under Review.

Georgescu-Roege, N., 1975. Energy and Economic Myths. South. Econ. J.

Levidow, L., 2013. EU criteria for sustainable biofuels: Accounting for carbon, depoliticising plunder. Geoforum 44, 211–223.

Ostwald, W., 1907. The modern theory of energetics. Monist 17, 481–515.

Ripa, M., Cadillo-Benalcazar, J.J., Giampietro, M., 2020. Cutting through the biofuel confusion: an analytical framework to check the feasibility, viability and desirability of biofuels. Energy Strategy. Under Review.

Rosen, R., 2005. Life itself: a comprehensive inquiry into the nature, origin, and fabrication of life. Columbia University Press, New York.

UNEP, 2017. Assessing Biofuels. Towards Sustainable Production and Use of Resources.