30 Mar 2011

New research questions benefits of biofuels

New research by The Open University and the Transnational Institute questions whether biofuels will bring benefits to the environment and rural development, especially as their production changes land use, with long-term detrimental effects.

Dr Les Levidow, Senior Research Fellow at The Open University, said: “For several years, biofuels have been criticised as ‘agrofuels’ because of the intensive, industrial ways they are produced. Our research found the harmful effects of biofuel cultivation could significantly undermine the environmental benefits.”

Biofuel cultivation has already created conflict with environmental protection law in Brazil and with traditional land rights in Mozambique. When governments classify land as ‘marginal’ to justify its use for agro-industrial biofuel production, this deprives rural communities who depend on such land and nearby water supplies. Plantations may create employment but degrade its conditions and undermine other livelihoods in the informal economy.

It also has implications for EU policy, as Les explains: “The EU has promoted biofuels in the name of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. If conventional biofuel usage goes much above 6% of transport fuels, it will trigger large-scale indirect land use changes, which could undermine the supposed savings in greenhouse gas from substituting biofuels for oil. National plans for renewable energy, recently submitted to the European Commission, suggest that this will happen. This prospect puts into question the environmental rationale for EU targets, especially that 10% of transport fuel should come from renewable energy by 2020.

“EU policy expects that second-generation biofuels will use natural resources more efficiently, thereby avoiding the current conflicts over land use and greenhouse emissions. Such expectations for a techno-fix perpetuate the current drive to expand biofuel production, along with Europe’s greater demands for transport fuel, and so worsen the current problem.”

Further information
The biofuels study resulted in a report, 'Agrofuel Crops', as well as a journal paper, 'Assumptions in the European Union biofuels policy: frictions with experiences in Germany, Brazil and Mozambique', Journal of Peasant Studies, September 2010. Please see link (right).

The biofuels study contributed to a larger project, 'Co-operative Research on Environmental Problems in Europe (CREPE)', whose final report is entitled 'Agricultural Innovation: Sustaining What Agriculture? For What European Bio-Economy?', available at The project was funded by the European Commission during 2008-2010.

Editor's Notes
The research team for the biofuels study comprised: Les Levidow (The Open University); Jennifer Franco (Transnational Institute); David Fig (Biowatch South Africa); Lucia Goldfarb (Transnational Institute); Mireille Hönicke (Buko-Agrar, Germany) and Maria Luisa Mendonça (University of São Paulo, Brazil).

• The Open University climbed 23 places to 43rd in the UK’s last Research Assessment Exercise (RAE 2008), securing a place in the UK’s top 50 higher education institutions. Results showed that more than 50% of the University’s research is internationally excellent (3*), with a significant proportion world-leading (4*).

• Les Levidow is a member of the OU’s Development Policy and Practice Group.

• The Open University is the UK’s largest university and the world leader in distance education, and celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2009. It has more than 200,000 students in over 40 countries. Of these, some 1,300 are postgraduate research students.

• Open Research Online (ORO), the University’s freely accessible repository of research publications, is available at: ORO has around 35,000 visitors from over 170 different countries each month, and is currently ranked the fourth best higher education repository in the UK by the Registry of Open Access Repositories (ROAR).

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