In This Article Geography of Biofuels

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Geography Geography of Biofuels
Kirby E. Calvert
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0188


Biofuels are energy carriers derived from primary biomass production systems such as farms, forests, and algae ponds, or from waste streams such as municipal solid waste and animal excrement. Biomass, in its raw form as firewood and straw, is humanity’s oldest energy carrier; as such, raw forms of biomass used for energy purposes are often referred to as “traditional” biofuels. Through various physical and thermochemical processes, raw biomass can be converted into a more energy-dense substance, either as a solid fuel such as pellets and briquettes, liquid fuel such as ethanol and biodiesel, or gaseous fuel such as biogas. These are often referred to as “advanced” biofuels, though this term is reserved by some experts for high-quality liquid biofuels that have been chemically formulated to imitate petroleum fuels–so-called “drop-in biofuels.” This review will cover geographical scholarship on advanced biofuels broadly defined–including but not limited to “drop-in biofuels,” with a relatively lighter treatment of geographical scholarship on traditional biofuels. Biofuels are a well-established topic area of scholarly research. A range of journals are dedicated to collating and showcasing this body of work, including Biofuels; Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biorefining; and Biomass and Bioenergy. An even wider range of energy-related journals regularly publish research on biofuels, including Energy Policy; Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews; and Energy Conversion and Management, to name just a few. Biofuels, and the emerging bioeconomy more generally (which covers bioproducts as well as biofuels), have also become a common focal point for research in science and technology studies broadly defined, published in journals such as Science, Technology and Human Values; Science and Technology Studies; and Technology Analysis and Strategic Management. As this review will show, geographical scholarship has featured prominently in this literature. At the same time, biofuels have been used as a case study for theoretical and methodological development in geography more generally; this work tends to be published in journals more commonly read among the geographical community, such as Geoforum, Applied Geography, or Land Use Policy, to name only a few journals that publish on biofuels more frequently than the average journal in geography. Generally speaking, geographical scholarship on biofuels has tended to focus on upstream issues related to land-use and resource management, but smaller amounts of research are conducted on downstream issues related to the development of biofuel supply chains and biofuel use. This review of geographical scholarship on biofuels is broken down into five sections. The next section, General Overviews, provides a summary of works that collectively constitute an overview of the wide range of issues and research related to biofuels. In the sections that follow this overview, geographical scholarship on biofuels is categorized into four broadly defined (but not mutually exclusive) subdisciplinary themes: Land-Use and Land-Cover Change, Resource Geography, Economic Geography, and Political Ecology. For each, key directions and debates are summarized, and seminal articles are identified. Note that although the review focuses on biofuels specifically, including traditional and advanced biofuels, it also includes research into related themes such as bioeconomy, bioenergy, and biorefining.

General Overviews

No single reference will provide a reader with the full range of biofuel-related perspectives and research among geographers. A carefully collated bibliography is required to capture this breadth. Technical and biophysical constrains on biofuel production and consumption are summarized in Smil 1983. Solomon 2010 provides a review of the conditions under which biofuels might be considered “sustainable,” which helps us to itemize criteria for sustainability standards. The social justice concerns that have emerged in the wake of increased development of biofuels, stemming from issues related to food security and land grabbing, are covered in Mints-Habib 2016 and Smith 2010. The influence of technological change in (re)shaping these social dynamics and society-environment relationships across geographic scales is preliminarily discussed in Calvert, et al. 2017. Taylor 2017 summarizes perspectives on what might be called “traditional” biofuels such as firewood, charcoal, dung, and crop residues, along with attempts to transition from these fuels to more modern fuels such as kerosene and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). This work reminds us that traditional biofuels are not a fuel of the past but are in fact the fuel of the present and future for millions of people around the world. The sections that follow in this review will drill down further into these broad discussions.

  • Calvert, Kirby E., Jamie D. Stephen, M. Jean Blair, Laura Cabral, Ryan E. Baxter, and Warren E. Mabee. “The Changing Geographies of Biorefining.” In Handbook on the Geographies of Energy. Edited by Barry D. Solomon and Kirby E. Calvert, 88–103. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2017.

    DOI: 10.4337/9781785365621.00015E-mail Citation »

    Provides an overview of the evolving technology landscape through which biomass is being processed into various fuels and other products. Highlights the interdependent relationship between technological change, social change, and ecological change, using examples and evidence from the North American context.

  • Mints-Habib, Nazia. Biofuels, Food Security, and Developing Economies. New York: Routledge, 2016.

    E-mail Citation »

    Examines the role of biofuels in driving global food security. Situates biofuels in the multiple exposures that contribute to vulnerability of the poor and marginalized in developing economies. Argues that nations rushed into biofuels, with dramatic consequences, and highlights the need for better data and information upon which to properly situate biofuels in global food security strategies and rural development plans.

  • Smil, Vaclav. Biomass Energies: Resources, Links, Constraints. New York: Plenum, 1983.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4613-3691-4E-mail Citation »

    Situated in the context of energy transitions, this book organizes a set of critical discussions according to various sources of biomass (forests, agriculture, aquatic plants, wastes). Discussions emphasize biophysical and technical issues, which generally take a critical or pessimistic view of the potential of biofuels to supplant fossil fuels. E-book version published in 2013 by Springer.

  • Smith, James. Biofuels and the Globalization of Risk: The Biggest Change in North-South Relationships since Colonialism? London: Zed, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    Unpacks the processes through which an emerging global biofuel industry is reshaping North-South relationships through trade and land grabbing. Situates biofuels in the broader context of neoliberalization and global trade from a critical social science perspective.

  • Solomon, Barry D. “Biofuels and Sustainability.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1185 (2010): 119–134.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.05279.xE-mail Citation »

    An overview of the debates around the sustainability of biofuels, including issues related to greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity, and ecosystem health. The focus is on liquid biofuels. Standards and criteria developed by national and international agencies to define “sustainable biofuels” are reviewed and considered to be a driver of an accelerated shift toward liquid biofuels.

  • Taylor, Matthew J. “Energy for the World’s Kitchens: Biomass for Survival in the Past, Present, and Future.” In Handbook on the Geographies of Energy. Edited by Barry D. Solomon and Kirby E. Calvert, 11–22. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2017.

    DOI: 10.4337/9781785365621.00010E-mail Citation »

    Provides a critical assessment of the policies and market mechanisms that have been used to try to encourage households in developing economies to transition away from wood fuel for heating and cooking. Unpacks the relationship between society and wood fuel from a broadly defined political-ecology perspective.

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