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Between dead end and energy transition:
A social-ecological multilevel analysis of transnational biofuel policy

Background

The processing of biomass to produce combustible fuels – namely biofuels or agrofuels – is expanding rapidly at the global level. In view of the finite, non-renewable nature of fossil fuel energy sources as well as the advancing climate change, the production of biofuels is a key element in the effort to achieve a global turning point with respect to energy production. Biofuels are intended to help transform fossil fuel energy systems and at the same time reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In a number of developing and emerging countries such an approach, combined with their own growth strategies, is leading to the increased manufacture of biofuels in these countries not only for domestic use but also for export to Europe and North America.

However, biofuel production comes with a multitude of associated social and environmental conflicts, raising the fear that this fuel supply strategy could lead to an impasse or dead end: competition with food crops, changes in land use, dispossession of small-scale farming, as well as conversion of old-growth forest and protected land to industrial areas. Furthermore, questions have been raised regarding the ecological balance sheet for biofuels and the socially unequal distribution of uses and costs.

Pitted against these issues are the hopes that such problems will not only be solved but that the investments will also promote rural development in the producing countries. The arguments include the existing potential for land development, the opportunity for directed development by means of an appropriate policy framework, e.g. certifications and standards, as well as technological innovation.

At present there are very few analyses that take an interdisciplinary approach in examining biofuels with respect to cross-conflict and transnational impacts. This is where the Fair Fuels? project comes in.