Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Biofuels: A Contested Response to Climate Change

Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Biofuels: A Contested Response to Climate Change

Article excerpt


Unlike Europe, Brazil has produced ethanol (from sugar cane) for many years, starting in the 1930s. In 1975, Brazil implemented the National Alcohol Program in response to worldwide oil- and sugar-market crises and, in 1979, began mass production of dedicated ethanol vehicles (Soccol et al. 2005; Matsuoka et al. 2009). The United States also has had experience with ethanol production, and over the last decade biofuels have become the most common source of alternative energy in the American transportation sector. In 2008, the United States produced nine billion gallons (one gallon = approximately 3.8 liters) of biofuels, compared to only 1.4 billion gallons in 1998 (Delshad et al. 2010; Sorda et al. 2010).

In Europe, biofuel technologies have received renewed attention over the past few years partly because of their promise to reduce carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions from transportation sources and partly because of questions concerning energy-supply security (Ryan et al. 2006). Biofuels have not yet been introduced on a larger scale in either the European Union (EU) or Denmark, but in 2007 EU governments set a target of substituting 10% of all land-based transportation fuels with biofuels by 2020 (European Commission, 2007). In 2009, the European Commission introduced a more moderate EU Renewable Energy Directive, mainly in response to rising concern and criticism regarding the biofuel target and its impacts on sustainable development. The Directive retained the 10% objective, but also included any renewable energy source (or combination) in total transportation-energy supply (European Union, 2009). To comply, Denmark has introduced mandatory addition of biofuel in all land transport fuels up to 5.75% in 2012 (Klima-og Energiministeriet, 2011). Nevertheless, biofuels and their use for transportation remain debated in Denmark and internationally, with initial public support for biofuel technologies all but given.

The question of how people relate to the prospect of using biofuels to reduce CO2 emissions from transportation vehicles, and particularly the risks and uncertainties associated with large-scale biofuel production, provides the point of departure for this article. We address issues associated with this energy source through qualitative sociological analysis based on both individual and focus-group interviews.

We begin with a short outline of the study's background and methodology. This is followed by an analysis in three sections. First, we discuss the issue of biofuels as a response to climate change in relation to perceptions of risk and uncertainty. Second, we take a closer look at how people relate to biofuels as a potential solution to climate change. Third, we examine the ways in which people engage with problem solving and apportion responsibility for biofuels and other potential solutions to the problem of climate change: Who is perceived to be responsible for "doing something," both for making the complex choices among prospective interventions and for putting strategies into practice. The final section consists of a closing analysis and discussion.


The EU targets for biofuel substitution have raised questions about the technology's advantages and disadvantages, and the targets are still subject to discussion among governments. In Denmark, as in other countries, the debate has appeared regularly in the public media as well. Proponents argue, for instance, that

Denmark can cover a large proportion of its energy needs in an increasingly energy-consuming transport sector with biofuels. Although in the long run, hydrogen may be the solution to oil dependence, it may be necessary to opt for other alternatives before then. Biofuel for transport is also a good alternative for the environment (Vedelsby, 2007).1

By contrast, opponents

fear that millions of hectares of rain forest, natural areas, and farmland will be converted into monocultures with the sole purpose of providing raw materials for [biofuel] plants. …

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