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2nd Generation biofuels: a transdisciplinary dialogue

“Globally, there are politically important evidence gaps, but nationally, those evidence gaps are just not important enough for policy-makers to take account of them”.  

This was one comment summing up the discussion I had at a workshop on the development of 2nd generation, or cellulosic, biofuels (biofuels produced from crops or waste, that is not otherwise used as food).  The workshop’s aim was to produce ‘A transdisciplinary dialogue on the opportunities and challenges of cellulosic ethanol in the UK’, and was run by Dr. Kate Millar, the Director of the Centre for Applied Bioethics.  It was part of a number of events convened for the EU Framework 7 project, “Integrated EST-Framework” (EST-Frame).  Bringing together 12 scientists, engineers, environmental scientists and social scientists is not an easy feat, but the 24 hours’ of the workshop produced some extremely interesting discussions.

My own research considers endeavours to overcome some of the sustainability problems commonly associated with 1st generation biofuels (e.g. sugarcane and wheat), and so I was particularly interested in how the development of 2nd generation biofuels might change the sustainability landscape. Would many of the problems associated with biofuels in general – increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions when compared with fossil fuels, land grabbing, food insecurity and biodiversity loss – disappear if we were to start producing 2nd generation biofuels? 

Policy problems 

Oilseed rape grown for  1st
generation biofuel has limitations.
Image credit: Richard Webb
Much of the first day of the workshop was spent discussing ‘policy problems’ that would need to be overcome for the successful production of cellulosic biofuel for consumption in the UK. 2nd generation biofuels have not been viably commercialised to date largely because of the cost of production.  But this is not the only policy problem to be overcome.  2nd generation biofuel will not only come from ‘waste’, but also from crops, such as miscanthus, which are specifically grown as biofuel feedstock.  But policies to encourage the use of crop residues for biofuels, depend, first, upon the categorisation of the cellulose left behind in the farming of particular crops as ‘waste’ and, second, upon a decision that the ‘best’ use of that waste is its conversion to energy.  This decision may, in turn, depend upon an assumption relating to national energy security.

2nd generation biofuels can be made
from farm waste such as wood chips,
and residual non-food parts of crops
(e.g. stemsleaves and husks).

Image credit:
When discussing the problems that would need to be overcome for the production of 2nd generation biofuel, it soon became clear that our own understanding of the problems depended upon the frames through which they were envisioned, and/or the assumptions that might be made in even categorising them as problems in the first place. Such frames and assumptions need to be unpicked when making policy decisions relating to, for example, the ‘best’ use of land, the ‘best’ conversion processes, displacement effects resulting from the adoption of those policies, and the valuations made in assessing ‘costs’ resulting from the production of such biofuels.

Indirect land use change (ILUC)

One thorny issue relating to biofuels production has been that of ILUC.  ILUC has been a huge spoke in the wheel of policy-makers’ development of policy in relation to the development of biofuels, not only in the UK, but in the EU, and further afield.  Endeavouring to tackle this issue involves identifying potential knock-on effects resulting from direct land use change to biofuels feedstocks (whether 1st or 2nd generation). These might include increased GHG emissions, erosion, biodiversity loss, or increased insecurity in relation to land rights or food supply of local people.  

While the focus of policy-makers’ concerns in relation to ILUC has to date been GHG emissions, views in relation to all of these issues also depend upon one’s assumptions/framing.  Furthermore, such issues are by their very definition uncertain (because they involve future potential scenarios) and, in tackling each of them, require policy-makers to give value (either positive or negative value) to those potential scenarios.  Some of the values endowed by policy-makers in assessing indirect or direct land use change may be quantifiable.  Others, such as the values given by local people to their landscape before it is transformed for biofuel feedstocks, may not be.  Moreover, land use change resulting from policies made in the UK, may be taking place in countries as far afield as Africa or South East Asia, for example.  

While some participants thought that this demonstrated that even endeavouring to tackle an issue such as ILUC was purely altruistic, and therefore usually not important enough for national policy-makers to be swayed by, others argued that it was not altruism that demanded its recognition, but an appreciation of the integrated nature of our world, its people and environment, and markets for feedstocks.  Without actively sympathising with policy-makers, many participants recognised that there are no right answers when it comes to ILUC.

Need for a holistic approach in policy-making

Image by Steve Jurvetson
When discussion moved on to consider the types of evidence required for policy-makers to tackle the policy problems, we soon realised that different forms of ‘evidence’ were often integrated.  Moreover, it was not lack of evidence that was the problem for policy-makers, or even ambiguity and uncertainty in the evidence, but the appraisal of that evidence.  This requires political decisions to be taken, something that policy-makers seem, ironically, to be distinctly uncomfortable with in relation to this area.

The workshop was a valuable exercise.  To paraphrase one participant: many of the technical or economic issues relating to the development of cellulosic biofuels in the UK could be resolved by taking a very narrow view of the problem.  However, such issues do encompass wider issues.  Countering the scientists’ and engineers’ ‘problem-solving’ approaches to policy issues, with social scientists’ more critical understanding of the social issues surrounding the problems is always going to be a challenge, but one that, I believe, is crucial if those problems are really going to be solved with any success.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Dr Elizabeth Fortin, University of Bristol Law School.
Dr Elizabeth Fortin

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