Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Evaluating Effectiveness of Open Assessments on Alternative Biofuel Sources

Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Evaluating Effectiveness of Open Assessments on Alternative Biofuel Sources

Article excerpt


Growing energy demand and greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil fuels have increased interest in the production of renewable energy. Biofuels have been the focus of particular attention--especially liquid or gaseous fuels for transport produced from biomass (European Parliament, Council of the European Union, 2009). Accordingly, biofuel production has become a rapidly growing industry as it is considered to aid in reducing greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions from the transport sector, decrease dependence on fossil fuels, and contribute to the economic growth of developing countries (Ryan et al. 2005; Cassman & Liska, 2007; Mathews, 2008). To help reach GHG emission-reduction goals, the European Union (EU) has set a target to cover at least 10% of the transport sector's energy demand with renewable energy resources by 2020 (European Parliament, Council of the European Union, 2009).

However, the sustainability of biofuels has been criticized, and whether they ultimately offer carbon savings depends on how they are produced (Fargione et al. 2008; Giampietro & Mayumi, 2009; Tilman et al. 2009; Gomiero et al. 2010). Converting native ecosystems to biofuel production can create so-called "biofuel-carbon debt" and release much more carbon dioxide (CO2) than the annual GHG reductions these biofuels provide by replacing fossil fuels (Fargione et al. 2008). In addition, the use of nitrogen fertilizers in crop production of commonly used biofuels, such as biodiesel from rapeseed and bioethanol from corn, can contribute as much or more to global warming as the combustion of fossil fuels (Crutzen et al. 2008). The production process itself can also require more energy input from fossil fuels than is created (Pimentel & Patzek, 2005). Furthermore, many other ethical and environmental issues must be addressed, such as conflict between biofuel production and global food security, use of limited water resources, tensions between outside land owners and indigenous communities, competition with grazing wild and domesticated animals, and possible threats to biodiversity and soil fertility (Giampetro & Mayumi, 2009; Tilman et al. 2009; Gomiero et al. 2010). Due to the many controversial aspects associated with biofuel production, its sustainability can vary significantly. In short, the adoption of biofuels may not be the relatively straightforward solution to climate change that it first appears to be.

Before making new investments in biofuel production and supply, industrial decision makers have to consider a wide range of scientific and nonscientific information that involves financial, environmental, and social aspects of the production chain. For example, GHG emissions, as well as other impacts and costs of biofuel production, can vary considerably across different raw materials and production sites. In addition, stakeholder and public perspectives at local, regional, and global levels pose significant constraints on biofuel-investment decisions.

Different kinds of assessments, which may apply models as well as decision-analytical methods such as multicriteria analysis, can generate knowledge for such decisions (see Jakeman et al. 1998; Zopounidis & Pardalos, 2010; Pohjola et al. 2012). Various participatory techniques can also accompany these procedures (see e.g., Pohjola & Tuomisto, 2011), but the effectiveness of the support they provide faces many possible limitations (Matthews et al. 2011; Pohjola & Tuomisto, 2011; Pohjola et al. 2012; 2013). Where the implications of decisions are complex and difficult to anticipate, multiple needs, interests, and perspectives must be accounted for (Figure 1).

[Image omitted: see PDF]

Figure 1 Complex decisions need to take account of multiple needs, interests, and sources of knowledge. Reproduced from Tijhuis et al. 2012 with permission.

Public participation and stakeholder involvement in assessment and policy making are built on the ideas of democracy and participatory policy (Fiorino, 1990) and enhance acceptance, integrate local knowledge with scientific information, and produce more flexible and transparent decisions (van den Hove, 2000; Reed, 2008). …

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