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

Module six: Potentials and Limitations of Policy Instruments for the Reduction of Social-ecological Problems

The potential for using policy instruments to contain the numerous ecological, as well as social and social-economic problems, associated with the production of biofuels has been the subject of heated discussions for several years now. The ecological impacts of biofuels, e.g. rainforest deforestation, as well as the social consequences, e.g. the impact on food prices, have received critical, public appraisal. Thus the level of debate and the attention given to possible policy approaches for dealing with the issue have once again noticeably increased. Despite the implementation of the initial regulations, the controversy surrounding the indicators for sustainable biofuel production, its suitability and appropriateness, as well as risks and side effects, has continued uninterrupted.

In this context, it is necessary to first distinguish between voluntary efforts and those that are federally mandated. At the international level, a number of voluntary initiatives have been developed in the context of so-called multi-stakeholder dialogues, with the goal of establishing a selection of social-ecological criteria for production standards for specific bioenergy crops. Among the most important initiatives are the Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS) and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The RSPO certification system has been in field trials since summer 2007. Parallel to this, the state players have also been pushing ahead with the development of sustainability standards for the production of biofuels. In the wake of particular intensive critical debates that took place in this country, Germany became a forerunner. In October 2007, a draft of a so-called biomass-sustainability ordinance was released, with the intent of establishing the basis for implementation of a certification system. The ordinance never went into effect, however, as it was overridden by a directive simultaneously developed at the EU level, which was issued in December 2008 as a part of the energy and climate package. The EU directive and its subordinate regulations as well as their implementation at the national level now establish a framework for federally mandated sustainability standards for the production and use of biofuels. They establish the basis for federally initiated certification systems, which, however, will not be offered by the government but rather brought to market by third-parties.

Despite these comparably recent responses to already criticized social-ecological problems, numerous environmental and social issues organizations have held fast to their fundamental criticisms of biofuels production and the lack of effectiveness of policy instruments. The main points of criticism deal with the complexity and poor manageability of the systems and indicators, the numerous crowding-out effects (indirect effects) not captured in the system, and the minimal suitability to small farmers and thus the associated negative social impacts. The extent to which further regulatory measures could help, for example, by means of rider agreements or overriding bi- or multilateral agreements, is under discussion, but this is likewise a contentious issue. The critics, however, are far from unanimous in their dissent – there are also those among the ranks of the environmental and social issues groups who also see in part advantages in the production of biofuels, and it is emphasised that biofuels alone cannot be held responsible for what are essentially structural problems.

Relevant here are the various roles played in the political process by participating environmental and social issues groups, but also (both positively and negatively) affected businesses. With a view to policy instruments being implemented at the EU level and in Germany, the role of science is also relevant, inasmuch as “scientific policy advisors” were heavily involved in drawing up these methodologically complex regulations. This raises, for one thing, the question of the nature of the science-policy interface. At the same time, the role and suitability of the impact assessments (in place at the EU level for some years now) that must be carried out before the introduction of significant policy regulations – and this applies as well to biofuels policy – are open to critical scrutiny.

Against this background of extremely diverse positions and opinions on the impact and scope of the sustainability policy and instruments for biofuels production, the question arises: Is it possible to offer some scientific insight and clarification with respect to these issues?

Taking these considerations as a starting point, the following aspects and problems are addressed in module 6:

  • A political science analysis of the primary instruments for regulating the sustainability of biofuels: Who or what were the substantial players and/or factors of influence playing a decisive role in the current development of relevant policy at the national and international level?
  • Analysis and assessment of the controlling instruments and aspects of biofuels-sustainability policy
    • Assessment of substantive indicators: Selected social and/or socio-economic and ecological indicators will be investigated with respect to the extent of their capability to address the various factors involved in biofuels-relevant certification systems. Here we draw on the regional case studies (modules 1-3) as well as module 4 (environmental assessment).
    • Normative contextualisation / assessment: What about the possible influence of the biofuels-sustainability policy in the context, for example, of the concept of strong sustainability?
    • Role and significance of trade/imports: Discussions of biofuels markets and trade deal overwhelmingly with the import of “non-sustainable” biofuels and raw materials. The extent and source of the imports, as well as their indirect impact upon the production of conventional biofuels, thus plays a large role.
  • Results, recommendations, and conclusions for further application: What is the effect of biofuels-sustainability policy, what is its scope, and is it a suitable instrument for coping with the social-ecological problems and conflicts of biofuels production? What recommendations for the application/expansion of sustainability policy to the entire agricultural or biomass sector can be drawn from the findings on biofuels? What advice and recommendations for a reformulation of the policy can be given?