The societal debate on biofuels is characterised by increased complexity. This can hinder the effective governance of the field. This paper attempts a quantitative bird's eye meta-analysis of this complexity by mapping different stakeholder perspectives and expected outcomes as seen in the secondary literature on biofuels, along the lines of the People-Planet-Profit framework. Our analysis illustrates the tension between stated and actual drivers of large scale biofuel development, especially for first generation biofuels. Although environmental (Planet) aspects have dominated the biofuel debate, their overall assessment is mostly negative with regard to first generation biofuels. By contrast, economic (Profit) aspects are the only ones that are assessed positively with regard to first generation biofuels. Furthermore, positive and negative assessments of biofuel development are strongly influenced by the differences in focus between different stakeholder clusters. Stakeholders who appear generally supportive to biofuel development (industry) focus relatively more on aspects that are generally assessed as positive (Profit). By contrast, non-supportive stakeholders (NGO's) tend to focus mainly on aspects that are generally assessed as negative (Planet). Moreover, our analysis of reference lists revealed few citations of primary scientific data, and also that intergovernmental organizations produce the most influential publications in the debate. The surprising lack of listed references to scientific (primary) data reveals a need to assess in which arena the transition of scientific data towards secondary publications takes place, and how one can measure its quality. This work should be understood as a first effort to take some control over a complex and contradictory number of publications, and to allow the effective governance of the field through the identification of areas of overlapping consensus and persisting controversy, without reverting to claims on technical detail.
In recent years, the societal debate on biofuels has become increasingly chaotic. What started out as a relatively clear-cut debate on finding a new source of energy without having to change our existing infrastructure became a fully-fledged debate on world hunger  and, disappearing rain forests , up to the problem of an economic re-colonization of the developing world . In this debate, the complexity of the technologies involved and their societal implementation has been much neglected. Confusingly, opposing claims about the facts, consequences and impact of large-scale implementation of different types of biofuel occurred not only among the public, but also in expert reports produced by different organizations. Although uncertainty about potential negative impacts often becomes a cause of dissent in societal debates on innovative technology, that was taken to an extreme in the debate on the implementation of biofuels. Much confusion and distrust is caused by persistent differences of perspective between stakeholder groups that assess the implementation of biofuels. Although by now, all stakeholder groups have more access to primary scientific data, it often appears that such increased knowledge does not lead to better understanding but rather to a deeper entrenchment in the original position a certain stakeholder has . The debate on the implementation of biofuels was especially polarising since the investment costs for technology development and the infrastructure needed for viable applications require the use of public funds and societal support. This polarity crystalized in 2008, in the form of a fierce debate between proponents and opponents, leaving the larger public baffled by competing claims.
The persistent complexity of the biofuel debate is caused by different types of uncertainty. They do not only concern the mere ‘state of the art’ of novel technologies and what uses are technically possible, but also including the socio-economic context, societal evaluation and environmental impact of different applications. This creates difficulties for political decision-making with regard to the further development of the sector. The interrelation between technical difficulties and problems of socio-economic embedding on different levels, and societal acceptance, demonstrates all the classic properties of a complex system. Complex systems are defined as networks of social and/or natural heterogeneous parts that interact in a nonlinear fashion. This means that simple cause-and-effect relations do not apply and it is not useful to approach complex systems through such causal analysis. This is different for complicated systems, in which a cause-and-effect analysis, albeit laborious, does yield results. Complexity gives rise to radical uncertainty, emergent (that is unpredictable and unexpected) behaviour and emergent properties . Their behaviour is unpredictable, because complex systems include not only ‘known unknowns’ (risks), but also ‘unknown unknowns’ (uncertainties). Complex systems are very difficult to manipulate and they are not susceptible to quick technological or societal fixes. The leverage points in a complex system are difficult to find or define. Approaching biofuels as a complex problem requires a process-based strategy that respects complexity as an integral part of biofuel development rather than targeting at immediate solutions.
This paper is the result of an analysis that aims to organize the multitude of reports on (sustainable) biofuel development. For our research, we differentiated between two levels of data. First, primary data consisting of scientific/technical papers based on field research (such as life cycle analysis). Second, secondary data consisting of impact assessment publications based on primary (and other secondary) data. Our analysis is a ‘meta assessment’ of the biofuel debate based on secondary literature along the lines of the People-Planet-Profit (PPP) approach [6,7]. The PPP approach measures organizational (and societal) success that expands beyond the economic to the ecological and social. This so-called ‘triple bottom line’ is made up of ‘social, economic and environmental’ dimensions. It aims to benefit all these dimensions simultaneously, without neglecting any of them. Here, it serves mainly as a means to assess reports, taking into account all these dimensions, and how they prioritize. This enabled us to summarize the viewpoints and assessments of major stakeholders in the field and to produce an at-first-glance identification of areas of overlapping consensus and persisting controversy without reverting to an approach restricted to claims on technical intricacies.
2. Material and methods
Our analysis is based on a literature research of reports published between 2006 and early 2010 by major European or International stakeholders. ‘Primary data’ such as technical reports based on field studies were excluded from the scope of the literature research, and only ‘secondary data’ such as impact assessment reports based on primary data or other secondary reports were taken into consideration. The resulting list of reports was critically assessed by a limited group of expert policy-makers, representatives of NGOs and scientists.
We classified the reports in five stakeholder clusters: government, NGO, academia, industry and consultancy (table 1).
The reports were analysed in two steps. The first step mapped the communication between different stakeholder groups at the level of cited publications. The list of references in each report was screened to identify references to report sources belonging to each stakeholder group. These were subsequently normalized for the number of stakeholders within each group by dividing the number of such references by the number of stakeholders within a clustered group. The graphical visualization of the results shows how many times the average publication of each stakeholder cluster refers to publications of the same or other clusters (figure 1).
In the second step,we compared the perspectives and opinions of different stakeholder clusters. The selected reports were first screened for broad socio-economic and environmental impact aspects of biofuel development. These aspects were classified in the categories PPP, depending on their general reference to societal, environmental or economic implications of biofuel production (table 2). Next, each report's opinion on these aspects was scored as ‘clearly positive', ‘clearly negative’ or ‘neutral/unclear’. The normative characterization of the reports’ opinion as positive and negative was contextual, and reflects what is commonly considered to advance or impede the ends represented by each PPP category (table 2). All positive assessments were attributed a score of +1, all negative assessments a score of −1 and neutral/unclear assessments scored 0. These scores were then aggregated using relative importance weights. These weights expressed the relative frequency with which each aspect was considered by the assessed list of reports, for each PPP category. The assumption behind the relative importance weights is that more important issues appear more often in the literature.1 The number of issues assessed for each PPP category and the aggregated assessments per stakeholder and per year are presented in two fourfold graphs (both integrated in figure 2a (left side) and 2b (right side)).
The communication analysis between the different stakeholder clusters is based on a calculation of how often clusters of stakeholders quote each other (and themselves). This is represented in figure 1.
From the analysis, we derived a peer-based ranking of how influential different stakeholders' reports are by looking at the amount of cross-references between different stakeholder groups. This led from the most to the least influential stakeholder cluster, to the following ranking:
1. government > 2. consultancy > 3. NGO > 4. industry > 5. academiaOur analysis revealed that the number of references between stakeholders varied between 0 and 9 per report with an average of 3.7. Primary data (technical scientific reports) were not cited extensively. On average, less than 20 per cent of the references cited primary data. The most popular primary data publications to be cited were ‘use of US croplands for biofuels increases greenhouse gases through emissions from land-use change’  and ‘clearing and the biofuel carbon debt’ . These reports were published around the peak of the food-versus-fuel debate and they had a high impact at that time. Apart from these, stakeholders appear to prefer publications based on secondary data.
Governmental and academic reports contained the most diversified lists of references. Governmental reports contained the highest number of references to their own cluster and they were referred to most often by other stakeholder clusters. This is probably because the governmental cluster included a large number of high-status organizations such the Food and Agricultural Organization, the United Nations or the World Bank. The consultancy cluster did not refer to any other cluster, but was referred to by all others. Least referred to was the academia cluster, appearing like an island in the communication analysis but academic stakeholders mostly publish primary rather than secondary data.
An overview of the most debated aspects of large-scale biofuel development for each PPP category is presented in table 2.
Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, followed by pressure on land and water resources dominated the debate for the Planet category. With the exception of the Brazilian production of bioethanol from sugar cane [21,22] most stakeholders regard the use of first-generation biofuels to have a non-positive impact on GHG emissions when compared to fossil fuels. Important parameters include the choice of crop, the indirect emissions from land conversion and the requirements on agricultural inputs. The potential of more advanced generations of biofuels for GHG reduction was regarded more positively.
Our findings indicate that the impact of biofuel development on food prices  is the most frequently considered aspect in the People category. It was considered by many reports as a central issue. The majority of stakeholders regarded the impact of first-generation biofuels on food security as clearly negative, although many referred to it as neutral/unclear. Most stakeholders, however, did not expect second- and third-generation biofuels to have a negative impact on food security.
The creation of rural employment opportunities in the developing world and the general stimulation of economic growth in the developing world and improvement of national energy security were the most frequently considered Profit aspects [14,17,19,21,22,25,27,28]. The impact of the first-generation biofuels on employment opportunities is mostly regarded as positive or unclear, and the general expectation is that employment and growth opportunities will relate to the cultivation of ‘cash crops’ for biofuels as well as jobs in bio-refineries [14,22,25,27,28]. To the extent that the impact of more advanced generations of biofuels was discussed it was expected to be positive. These results were further quantified and are represented in figure 2.
In figure 2, the left graphs (a(i)–(iv)) present overlaps and differences in the focus of different stakeholder clusters along the PPP categories, and the right graphs (b(i)–(iv)) represent the overall positive, neutral/unclear or negative assessment of biofuels for each of these categories. The left graphs (a) then present the average number of issues per PPP category considered, per year and per stakeholder cluster, for first-generation biofuels and for other generations. The right graphs (b) present the normalized weighted aggregation of ‘clearly positive’, ‘neutral/unclear’ or ‘clearly negative’, assessments for the different aspects included in each PPP category. This was also done per year and per stakeholder cluster, for first-generation biofuels and for other generations. To account for differences in the number of aspects considered by each report in the second set of graphs (figure 2b), the results were normalized so that numerical entries indicate the fraction of the favourable positive or unfavourable negative score that would be achieved if all aspects considered by each report would be assessed to be positive or negative. This means that if all the aspects of any PPP category considered by every report in any stakeholder cluster are be assessed as clearly positive, then the aggregated score for that stakeholder cluster for that PPP category would be +1. If all assessments are be neutral or unclear, then the category score for this stakeholder would be 0; and if assessments were clearly negative, then the aggregated category score would be −1. This way, all positive values indicate favourable category assessments and all negative values indicate unfavourable category assessments.
Our analysis demonstrates that from the outset the biofuel debate mainly focused on environmental issues, in the sense that the average number of Planet aspects considered steadily outnumbered People and Profit aspect discussions (figure 2a). This is true for all generations of biofuel as well as for all stakeholder clusters. The most striking difference in focus can be observed between industry and NGOs: industry considers Profit and Planet equally often, while Profit aspects were given the least attention in reports by NGOs (figure 2a(iii),(iv)).
The second graphs (figure 2b) enables a discussion of the overall biofuel assessments for each PPP category without informing on the assessment of specific aspects. Our analysis indicates that Profit aspects are the only ones that are consistently regarded to be favourable throughout the studied period (figure 2b(i),(ii)). The overall assessment of Profit aspects has been consistently positive in the assessed period for the first-generation biofuels, whereas it was positive or unclear for second and third (more advanced) generations. Throughout the same period, the overall assessment of People aspects was neutral/unclear, while the overall assessment of the impact on Planet is consistently negative for the first generation and widely variable for more advanced generations of biofuel. At a stakeholder level (figure 2b(iii),(iv)), a view shared by most stakeholders is that the first-generation biofuels perform much better for Profit aspects than for People and Planet aspects. Most stakeholders regarded first-generation biofuels to be overall positive for Profit aspects, with the notable exception of NGOs, and neutral/unclear or negative for People and Planet aspects. The overall assessment of advanced biofuels presents a less clear picture that includes positive, neutral/unclear and negative assessments for each PPP category. Positive assessments for Profit come from industry and government, whereas Planet aspects are assessed positively by academia and industry.
Overall, our analysis illustrates the tension between the stated drivers and the existing drivers for large-scale biofuel development. Although environmental (Planet) aspects have dominated the biofuel debate, their overall assessment is mostly negative with regard to first-generation biofuels. Contrarily, economic (Profit) aspects are the only ones that are assessed positively with regard to first-generation biofuels. Results for more advanced generations are more positive on Planet aspects, although not consistently. Assessments for Profit aspects also become less clear with regard to more advanced generations. A reason for this can be that assessments are currently much more uncertain for advanced generations of biofuels.
Our analysis presents an overview of the course of the biofuel debate by summarizing the viewpoints and assessments of major stakeholders in the field. Since 2006, the controversies in the debate about the introduction of biofuels have evolved mostly in reference to the first-generation biofuels. We regarded the ongoing debates on sustainable biofuels from a categorization in PPP. From this perspective, the issues that emerge as having received most attention in publications and reports on biofuels were: the issue of GHG emissions; the problems that may occur with regard to land use changes; the issue of food security and hunger, and the issues of employment opportunities and secure energy supply. Other issues that were referred to, to a lesser extent included access to energy, time and health benefits for rural societies for and market disturbances, agricultural commodities.
The analysis of reference lists revealed few citations of primary scientific data and also that intergovernmental organizations produce the most influential publications in the debate. We noticed that very few publications actually cite scientific or primary data. If scientific data are hardly used throughout the publications, then it seems to be necessary to better assess in which arena the transition of primary data towards secondary data takes place, and how one can measure its quality. Our analysis indicates that positive and negative assessments of biofuel development are strongly influenced by the differences in perspective (focus) between different stakeholder clusters. This is exemplified by the observation that the stakeholders who appear generally supportive to biofuel development (industry) focus relatively more on aspects that are generally assessed as positive (Profit). Contrarily, stakeholders like NGOs that appear less supportive to biofuels  tend to consider less Profit aspects and focus mainly on, the generally assessed as negative, Planet aspects.
The attempted quantitative assessment of a qualitative body of literature enabled us a bird's eye perspective on the complex biofuel debate. Rather than adding to the complexity of the biofuel debate, we understand this bird's eye view allows one to gain some control over a complex and contradictory number of publications. We discussed some larger lines among the multitude of perspectives in the biofuel literature that may aid in setting a more rational agenda on governance in spite of, or rather, with respect for the complexity of the field. We regard this meta-analysis as an ongoing research effort: we consider to extend the initiative by repeating the research with a larger and updated report sample that will allow for more representative and in-depth analysis of the course of the biofuel debate.
We thank Steven Flipse for his critical remarks with regard to the methodology that lies at the basis of this paper. This project was carried out within the research programme of the Kluyver Centre for Genomics of Industrial Fermentation which is part of the Netherlands Genomics Initiative/Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, in a joint effort with the Centre for Society and Genomics.
↵1 Another assumption behind the aggregation of assessments is that it is possible to aggregate the performance of biofuels on different aspects within each PPP category (e.g. to aggregate performance for different Planet aspects). Although such aggregations are controversial owing to the incommensurability of the societal values underlying each aspect, they are nevertheless also considered as inevitable in practice and they are also common in currently popular policy assessment tools like Cost-Benefit Analysis.
One contribution to a Theme Issue ‘Biorenewables, the bio-based economy and sustainability’.
- Received November 16, 2010.
- Accepted January 10, 2011.
- This Journal is © 2011 The Royal Society