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: 10.4337/9781785365621.00015Save Citation »Export Citation » Share 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.

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

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    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.

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

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4613-3691-4Save Citation »Export Citation » Share 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.

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

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    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.

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  • 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.xSave Citation »Export Citation » Share 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.

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  • 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: 10.4337/9781785365621.00010Save Citation »Export Citation » Share 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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Land-Use and Land-Cover Change

Measuring and Monitoring Land-Use Change Related to Biofuel Production

The production of biomass for advanced biofuels adds pressure on terrestrial ecosystems above and beyond the existing pressures for food, fiber, and other products. Understanding how and with what effect biofuel-induced land-use change occurs has become a major focus of geographical research. Empirically, researchers have leveraged the ubiquity of large-scale land-cover data sets from satellite imagery to assess the extent to which croplands have expanded under biofuel policies, both directly within the nations that have established biofuel targets (Lark, et al. 2015) and indirectly in distant nations through the globalization of land-based commodities and land-use systems (Arima, et al. 2011). Brown, et al. 2014 studies farmer cropping decisions in the context of a new ethanol market for corn and observes a combination of intensification (corn grown more often on the same land) and extensification (corn production expanding into new lands) (see also Vasile, et al. 2016). On the basis of these empirical efforts, scholars have incorporated biofuel policies and markets into land-use change models at local and global scales (Meyfroidt, et al. 2013; Efroymson, et al. 2016). For a review of such models, their respective sources of uncertainty, and mitigation strategies that might alleviate the impact of biofuel-induced land-use change, see Wicke, et al. 2012 and Gao, et al. 2011. Research into how and with what effect biofuel-induced land-use change occurs underlies social and political debates about the scale and significance of biofuel-induced land-use change. Broadly speaking, those who oppose biofuels on the basis of land-use change focus on two issues: (1) environmental impacts such as habitat change and carbon sequestration as land is converted into energy crop production; and (2) social impacts such as competition with food production and large-scale land transfers from local subsistence to multinational corporations (i.e., land grabbing)—an issue we discuss in more detail in the section on Political Ecology. Proponents of biofuels, on the other hand, claim that the direct and indirect land-use impacts of biofuel production are overstated and can be managed as more (land-)efficient production systems are employed, and as efficiencies in prevailing agricultural systems can spare land for restoration (Lynd, et al. 2007; Strassburg, et al. 2014).

  • Arima, Eugenio Y., Peter Richards, Robert Walker, and Marcellus M. Caldas. “Statistical Confirmation of Indirect Land Use Change in the Brazilian Amazon.” Environmental Research Letters 6.2 (2011): 024010.

    DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/6/2/024010Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Using advanced spatial statistics, the study argues that deforestation is linked to expansion of soy production through the conversion of pasturelands to graze cattle. Pastureland is converted to soy production, and forests are cut down to create new pastureland. Existing environmental policies that prohibit the expansion of soy into forested areas are useless because they do not address this indirect relationship.

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  • Brown, J. Christopher, Eric Hanley, Jason Bergtold, et al. “Ethanol Plant Location and Intensification vs. Extensification of Corn Cropping in Kansas.” Applied Geography 53 (2014): 141–148.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.apgeog.2014.05.021Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Using a three-year data set from 2007–2009, the study concludes that ethanol production has a significant impact on the intensiveness of corn production (crop switching and yield gains) as well as extensiveness of corn production (conversion of non-cropland into corn)

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  • Efroymson, Rebecca A., Keith L. Kline, Arild Angelsen, et al. “A Causal Analysis Framework for Land-Use Change and the Potential Role of Bioenergy Policy.” Land Use Policy 59 (2016): 516–527.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.landusepol.2016.09.009Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Develops a framework to bring together multiple lines of evidence to study the role of biofuel production in land-use change. Provides a general overview and critique of cause-effect studies as they relate to land-use change, and highlights the deep uncertainty and ambiguity in the science and policy related to biofuels and land-use change.

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  • Gao, Yan, Margaret Skutsch, Rudi Drigo, Pablo Pacheco, and Omar Masera. “Assessing Deforestation from Biofuels: Methodological Challenges.” Applied Energy 31 (2011): 508–518.

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    Examines the link between biofuels and deforestation—or indirect land-use change. Provides an overview of the methodological challenges associated with this task, and ultimately advocates for a multiscalar approach.

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  • Lark, Tyler J., J. Meghan Salmon, and Holly K. Gibbs. “Cropland Expansion Outpaces Agricultural and Biofuel Policies in the United States.” Environmental Research Letters 10.4 (2015): 044003.

    DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/10/4/044003Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Estimates the extent and spatial distribution of cropland expansion in the United States in response to biofuel policies. Cropland expansion has tended to occur most rapidly on land less suitable for cultivation, as well as across grasslands.

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  • Lynd, Lee R., Mark S. Laser, John McBride, Kara Podkaminer, and John Hannon. “Energy Myth Three—High Land Requirements and an Unfavorable Energy Balance Preclude Biomass Ethanol from Playing a Large Role in Providing Energy Services.” In Energy and American Society: Thirteen Myths. Edited by Benjamin K. Sovacool and Marilyn A. Brown, 75–101. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1007/1-4020-5564-1Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Provides an overview of the myriad factors that contribute to the quantity of land needed to produce a unit of energy with biomass. Argues that the land-use impacts related to biofuels would be less of a concern through some combination of conversion efficiency gains, agronomic efficiency gains, reductions in fuel use, and a less meat-intensive diet among developed nations, which would reduce the land intensiveness of food production.

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  • Meyfroidt, Patrick, Eric F. Lambin, Karl-Heinz Erb, and Thomas W. Hertel. “Globalization of Land Use: Distant Drivers of Land Change and Geographic Displacement of Land Use.” Current Opinions on Environmental Sustainability 5 (2013): 438–444.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.cosust.2013.04.003Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Examines the role of global trade in establishing causal linkages across land-use systems. Computing international material flows is necessary, but by itself is insufficient to understand these linkages—also required are local-level simulation models, statistical analysis, and other tools.

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  • Strassburg, Bernardo B. N., Agnieszka E. Latawiec, Luis G. Barioni, et al. “When Enough Should Be Enough: Improving the Use of Current Agricultural Lands Could Meet Production Demands and Spare Natural Habitats in Brazil.” Global Environmental Change 28 (2014): 84–97.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2014.06.001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The paper identifies significant underproduction on currently cultivated and grazed lands due to inefficiency, and estimates the area of land that could be spared if those efficiencies were captured.

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  • Vasile, Andrei Jean, Ion Raluca Andreea, Gheorghe H. Popescu, Nica Elvira, and Zaharia Marian. “Implications of Agricultural Bioenergy Crop Production and Prices in Changing the Land Use Paradigm—The Case of Romania.” Land Use Policy 50 (2016): 399–407.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.landusepol.2015.10.011Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The paper finds statistically significant correlations between biomass-for-biodiesel production and the price of food-based commodities such as soy and sunflower. Acknowledges the need to consider a wider range of variables that might also be impacting commodity prices.

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  • Wicke, Birka, Pita Verweij, Hans van Meijl, Detlaf P. van Vuuren, and Andre P. C. Faaij. “Indirect Land Use Change: Review of Existing Models and Strategies for Mitigation.” Biofuels 3 (2012): 87–100.

    DOI: 10.4155/bfs.11.154Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues that models projecting indirect land use change (ILUC) continue to be plagued by deep uncertainties that inhibit definitive claims. The impact of sustainability criteria and strategies to mitigate ILUC require further study.

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Sustainability of Biofuels Accounting for Land-Use Change

The environmental benefits of switching from fossil fuels to a biomass alternative are strongly dependent on local geographic nuance. Fast, et al. 2011 shows that the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction potential from (in this case corn-based) ethanol production vary greatly, depending on the GHG intensiveness of the biomass production system, which itself is based on local/regional growing conditions and transport requirements. Gerbens-Leenes, et al. 2012 studies the sustainability of biofuels from the perspective of their water footprint and notes that future biofuel production will add pressure to freshwater resources, which need to be considered in policy, planning, and facility-siting decisions. As noted in Gillon 2014, assessing the sustainability of biofuels, and the criteria by which to establish related certifications, is as much a political question as it is a scientific one. These issues are also reviewed in Solomon 2010 (cited under General Overviews)

  • Fast, Stewart, Mike Brklacich, and Marc Saner. “A Geography-Based Critique of New US Biofuels Regulations.” GCB Bioenergy 4 (2011): 243–252.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1757-1707.2011.01131.xSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Makes the key point that not all corn-to-ethanol facilities achieve expected net greenhouse gas reductions, due to the higher transport requirements, fertilizer requirements, and other site-specific factors that shape the greenhouse gas balance.

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  • Gerbens-Leenes, P. W., A. R. van Lienden, A. Y. Hoekstra, and T. H. van der Meer. “Biofuel Scenarios in a Water Perspective: The Global Blue and Green Water Footprint of Road Transport in 2030.” Global Environmental Change 22 (2012): 764–775.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2012.04.001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Assesses the water footprint of biofuels, showing it to be more significant than is commonly believed. By 2030, biofuels might require 5.5 percent of all available stocks of water (or “blue water”). Water requirements should be a core consideration in biofuel policymaking.

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  • Gillon, Sean. “Science in Carbon Economies: Debating What Counts in US Biofuel Governance.” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 46.2 (2014): 318–336.

    DOI: 10.1068/a46162Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Unpacks the various ways that carbon is counted and accounted for in US biofuel governance. Ultimately finds that the narrow view on carbon leads to contradictions.

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Explaining Land-Use Change Related to Biofuel Production

Two forms of land-use change are of particular interest here: (1) change from food-based production toward dedicated energy crops such as switchgrass or short-rotation willow, and (2) change from wooded or regenerating land toward dedicated energy crops. Surveys have shown that, in the context of privately owned and independently operated land-use systems, biofuel-induced land-use changes are related to farmer and land-owner attitudes toward new production systems, which are often formed in relation to existing land-use systems and livelihoods (Cope, et al. 2011; Pancholy, et al. 2011). Other determinants of biofuel-induced land-use change include policy supports, the availability of “underutilized” land, expected economic benefits, prevailing land-use market conditions, and risk aversion of the landowner (Hought, et al. 2012; Choudhury and Goswami 2013). On the basis of this survey research, geographers have developed predictive models in a geographic information system (GIS) to quantify the effects of different biomass and biofuel market conditions on land-use systems in case-study regions in the United States (Nepal, et al. 2015). However, many of the determinants of land-use change toward particular biofuel production systems are difficult to quantify. As just one example, Pancholy, et al. 2011 finds that an aesthetic preference for a forested landscape shaped landowner willingness to participate in a row-cropping-based production system.

  • Choudhury, Hari K., and Kishor Goswami. “Determinants of Expansion of Area under Jatropha Plantation in North East India: A Tobit Analysis.” Forest Policy and Economics 30 (2013): 46–52.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.forpol.2013.02.006Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A statistical analysis to better understand the factors that lead to farmer uptake of jatropha plantations, for the purpose of framing more suitable policy measures to achieve expansion.

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  • Cope, Miriam A., Sara McLafferty, and Bruce L. Rhoads. “Farmer Attitudes toward Production of Perennial Energy Grasses in East Central Illinois: Implications for Community-Based Decision Making.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 101 (2011): 852–862.

    DOI: 10.1080/00045608.2011.575320Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The authors used a series of maps to elicit conversations among farmers about land that may suitable for energy crop production, as well as the perceived barriers to growing dedicated energy crops.

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  • Hought, Joy, Torben Birch-Thomsen, Jacob Petersen, Andreas de Neergaard, and Myles Oelofse. “Biofuels, Land Use Change and Smallholder Livelihoods: A Case Study from Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia.” Applied Geography 34 (2012): 525–532.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.apgeog.2012.02.007Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Biofuel production was one among a range of factors contributing to deforestation in the region. Smallholders eventually participated in the growth of dedicated energy crops, but the price volatility of these crops compromised local food security.

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  • Nepal, Sandhya, Marco A. Contreras, George A. Stainback, and John M. Lhotka. “Quantifying the Effects of Biomass Market Conditions and Policy Incentives on Economically Feasible Sites to Establish Dedicated Energy Crops.” Forests 6 (2015): 4168–4190.

    DOI: 10.3390/f6114168Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Develops a method to understand how the spatial pattern of economically accessible biomass changes as a function of market and policy changes. Property tax exemption was shown to be a relatively weak incentive to produce biomass for energy.

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  • Pancholy, Nishita, Michael H. Thomas, Daniel Solid, and Nicholas Stratis. “The Impact of Biofuels on the Propensity of Land-Use Conversion among Non-industrial Private Forest Landowners in Florida.” Forest Policy and Economics 13 (2011): 570–574.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.forpol.2011.06.006Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    In a study of willingness to accept payment for land conversion from forested land into energy crops, forest aesthetics were the primary reason for an unwillingness to participate.

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Resource Geography

The Land Availability Question

Debates about the impacts of biofuel production on land-use systems have spawned a parallel stream of research into the availability of land upon which to grow dedicated biomass crops without impacting the availability and distribution of food and fiber. At the forefront of this literature are efforts to identify, map, and assess “marginal land,” such as Milbrandt, et al. 2014 (research that critiques the process through which land is classified as “marginal” is reviewed in the section on Land Grabbing). This research mostly relies on the classification of remotely sensed imagery and other land-cover data sets, searching for land that is less suitable for the production of food. In other words, this research is strongly context dependent: land deemed marginal in a highly productive region might be considered adequate in a region that is less productive. Indeed, research into marginal land is underpinned by conceptual and philosophical discussions about the challenges and implications of defining land as “marginal” (Shortall 2013, Lewis and Kelly 2014). Partly in an effort to avoid many of the empirical and conceptual pitfalls associated with marginal land, researchers have tried to find more definitive language and less arbitrary land resources. One subcategory of marginal land that has been used is “polluted land” (e.g., legacy mining sites). Researchers have recently conducted assessments of such land in Italy (Pulighe, et al. 2016), and there is growing interest in these lands across other nations as well. Another strategy to avoid the land-use impacts related to biofuels has been to focus attention on agricultural land that has been “abandoned” or is considered “surplus.” This work combines change detection techniques on remotely sensed imagery with agricultural census data to identify abandoned land at the global scale (Campbell, et al. 2008), at the regional scale in eastern Europe (Alcantara, et al. 2012) and among “developing nations” (Rahman, et al. 2014), and more recently within national boundaries such as the United States (Baxter and Calvert 2017). Biofuel production potential on abandoned agricultural land represents a fraction of the total requirements to completely displace petroleum-based fuels, even in those assessments that use “optimistic” assumptions. With this in mind, the land availability question is increasingly discussed as a “target market” question. This might involve identifying ways to ensure that the size of the biomass market is scaled appropriately relative to the quantity of biomass that can be produced under environmental and social conditions that might be deemed “sustainable”—for example, by targeting higher-value but lower-volume markets such as aviation fuel or biochemicals (Mabee 2013).

  • Alcantara, Camilo, Tobias Kuemmerle, Alexander V. Prishchepov, and Volker C. Radeloff. “Mapping Abandoned Agriculture with Multi-temporal MODIS Satellite Data.” Remote Sensing of the Environment 124 (2012): 334–347.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.rse.2012.05.019Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Develops classification techniques to identify abandoned agricultural land using relatively coarse resolution satellite imagery, with an overall accuracy of 65 percent. The approach was applied in eastern Europe, which has experienced widespread abandonment from agriculture following economic transition.

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  • Baxter, Ryan E., and Kirby E. Calvert. “Estimating Available Abandoned Cropland in the United States: Possibilities for Energy Crop Production.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 107.5 (2017): 1162–1178.

    DOI: 10.1080/24694452.2017.1298985Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues that “abandoned agricultural land” should not be considered synonymous with “marginal agricultural land.” Provides evidence to suggest that claims about the potential of “surplus” land to support widespread biofuel production are overblown. Develops a replicable method to estimate available abandoned agricultural land at the county level in the United States.

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  • Campbell, J. Elliott, David B. Lobell, Robert C. Genova, and Christopher B. Field. “The Global Potential of Bioenergy on Abandoned Agricultural Lands.” Environmental Science and Technology 42 (2008): 5791–5794.

    DOI: 10.1021/es800052wSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Combines historical data with satellite imagery and modeling to assess the area of agricultural land that has been abandoned at a global scale. Notes that some African nations could grow biomass at a rate that exceeds their energy needs many times over (a claim that has been challenged by critical scholars who argue that much of this land is vital for subsistence economies).

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  • Lewis, Sarah M., and Maggi Kelly. “Mapping the Potential for Biofuel Production on Marginal Lands: Differences in Definitions, Data and Models across Scales.” ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information 3 (2014): 430–459.

    DOI: 10.3390/ijgi3020430Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A systematic review of studies that map bioenergy potential across marginal lands. Argues that the lack of standardization across definitions of marginal land and the models through which biomass growth is assessed lead to stark differences in our understanding about the potential of biofuels.

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  • Mabee, Warren E. “Progress in the Canadian Biorefining Sector.” Biofuels (2013): 437–452.

    DOI: 10.4155/bfs.13.24Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Provides an overview of the changing policy framework around biofuels and bioproducts in the Canadian context, with an emphasis on the need to better understand supply-chain issues. Positions dedicated energy crops as a longer-term opportunity, and argues that biochemicals rather than biofuels may be a more appropriate pathway for Canada.

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  • Milbrandt, Anelia R., Donna M. Heimiller, Andrew D. Perry, and Christopher B. Field. “Renewable Energy Potential on Marginal Lands in the United States.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 29 (2014): 473–481.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.rser.2013.08.079Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Estimates the production potential from a range of renewable technologies using marginal land. Makes the critical point that land is considered “marginal” for different reasons, and therefore there are different categories of marginal land.

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  • Pulighe, Guiseppe, Guido Bonati, Stefano Fabiani, et al. “Assessment of the Agronomic Feasibility of Bioenergy Crop Cultivation on Marginal and Polluted Land: A GIS-Based Suitability Study from the Sulcis Area, Italy.” Energies 9 (2016): 895–904.

    DOI: 10.3390/en9110895Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Assesses biomass production potential on land contaminated with heavy metals, and suggests that giant reed, native grasses, or milk thistle are the most viable crop types.

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  • Rahman, Md. Mizanur, Suraiya B. Mostafiz, Jukka V. Paatero, and Risto Lahdelma. “Extension of Energy Crops on Surplus Agricultural Lands: A Potentially Viable Option in Developing Countries While Fossil Fuel Reserves Are Diminishing.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 29 (2014): 108–119.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.rser.2013.08.092Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The paper provides a very preliminary assessment of biomass production potential on “surplus” lands in developing nations, and finds that energy demands through 2035 could be met with approximately 25 percent of these lands.

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  • Shortall, O. K. “‘Marginal Land’ for Energy Crops: Exploring Definitions and Embedded Assumptions.” Energy Policy 62 (2013): 19–27.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2013.07.048Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Identifies three archetypal definitions of “marginal land” used by various stakeholders that include both normative and predictive qualities. The importance of finding common ground on definitions is discussed.

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The Resource Potential Question

Another subset of the resource geography literature focuses on mapping and estimating total biomass resource potential, sometimes using data sets of marginal land and abandoned land as inputs. Much of this work rests on a combination of remote sensing and geographic information systems. A review of global assessments can be found in Berndes, et al. 2008, while Batidzirai, et al. 2012 discusses techniques to harmonize the data and findings from multiple studies to achieve spatial (global) completeness. Only under the most optimistic assumptions is global biomass supply estimated to be sufficient to displace fossil fuels in modern economies. In light of this, and given the fact that biomass supply is subject to local geographical nuances that cannot be accurately depicted at global scales, most research focuses on local and regional scales of analysis to find local opportunities (Calvert 2011). This work aims to develop spatially explicit decision support about resource potential in forestry regions (e.g., Parhizkar and Smith 2008; Sacchelli, et al. 2014), agricultural regions (Schneider, et al. 2001), regions with a combination of agricultural and forestry activities (Mabee and Mirck 2011, Calvert and Mabee 2014), and regions that might support algae production (Sharma, et al. 2015). Given the fact that multiple renewable energy technologies compete for available land, some research has examined the production potential trade-offs that might occur when allocating land for one kind of renewable energy rather than another, with an emphasis on biomass (Calvert and Mabee 2015; Sacchelli, et al. 2016). Research has assessed biomass production potential under a broad range of sustainability criteria, such as water availability, land availability, and other factors (Fokaides, et al. 2015).

  • Batidzirai, Bothwell, Edward M. W. Smeets, and André P. C. Faaij. “Harmonising Bioenergy Resource Potentials—Methodological Lessons from Review of State of the Art Bioenergy Potential Assessments.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 16 (2012): 6598–6630.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.rser.2012.09.002Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Differences in methodological approaches to study bioenergy resource potential make it difficult to compare across geographies and to communicate effectively. The authors argue in favor of an approach that employs high-resolution data sets and accounts for critical factors and feedbacks such as water availability.

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  • Berndes, Göran, Monique Hoogwijk, and Richard van den Broek. “The Contribution of Biomass in the Future Global Energy Supply: A Review of 17 Studies.” Biomass and Bioenergy 25 (2008): 1–28.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0961-9534(02)00185-XSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A meta-analysis of resource assessments for biofuel supply, showing the variability of conclusions under different assumptions. Even under optimistic assumptions, the availability of biomass is insufficient to completely displace fossil fuels, which suggests that decisions will need to be made about the “best use” of biomass.

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  • Calvert, Kirby E. “Geomatics and Bioenergy Feasibility Assessments: Taking Stock and Looking Forward.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 15 (2011): 1117–1124.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.rser.2010.11.014Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A review of how biofuel feasibility studies have been supported by geographic information systems, remote sensing, and spatial analysis. Calls for more localized analysis to effectively capture nuance in land-use systems, transport systems, and social/regulatory context that shape spatial patterns of biomass production and availability.

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  • Calvert, Kirby E., and Warren E. Mabee. “Spatial Analysis of Biomass Resources within a Socio-ecologically Heterogeneous Region: Identifying Opportunities for a Mixed Feedstock Stream.” ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information 3.1 (2014): 209–232.

    DOI: 10.3390/ijgi3010209Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Locating at the transition zone between forestry activities in the north and agricultural activities in the south provides an opportunity to develop a feedstock supply that balances cost, spatial density, and seasonality of feedstock. This would require a “feedstock agnostic” processing technology or biorefining strategy.

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  • Calvert, Kirby E., and Warren E. Mabee. “More Solar Farms or More Bioenergy Crops? Mapping and Assessing Potential Land-Use Conflicts among Renewable Energy Technologies in Eastern Ontario, Canada.” Applied Geography 56 (2015): 209–221.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.apgeog.2014.11.028Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Solar farms and dedicated crops for bioenergy generally compete for the same kind of land and cannot be developed in spatial association. Solar farms can produce more energy, but dedicated crops provide opportunities for a wider range of energy and non-energy products. Strategies for energy transition therefore need to be coupled with land-use strategies.

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  • Fokaides, Paris A., Loizos Tofas, Polycarpos Polycarpou, and Angeliki Kylili. “Sustainability Aspects of Energy Crops in Arid Isolated Island States: The Case of Cyprus.” Land Use Policy 49 (2015): 264–272.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.landusepol.2015.08.010Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Uses multi-criteria evaluation in a geographic information system to identify lands that could support dedicated energy crops without unsustainable irrigation requirements. Provides a methodology to incorporate water limitations into biofuel production feasibility assessments.

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  • Mabee, Warren E., and Jaconette Mirck. “A Regional Evaluation of Potential Bioenergy Production Pathways in Eastern Ontario, Canada.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 101 (2011): 897–906.

    DOI: 10.1080/00045608.2011.568878Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Develops an approach to evaluate the potential of multiple technology options (e.g., pellets, power, different liquid fuel conversion pathways) and multiple feedstock types (agriculture, forestry) over a regional scale.

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  • Parhizkar, Omid, and Robert L. Smith. “Application of GIS to Estimate the Availability of Virginia’s Biomass Residues for Bioenergy Production.” Forest Products Journal 58 (2008): 71–76.

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    Develops and applies a GIS-based framework to map wood residues from wood processing, forestry, and landfill operations.

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  • Sacchelli, Sandro, Iacopo Bernetti, Isabella De Meo, et al. “Matching Socio-economic and Environmental Efficiency of Wood-Residues Energy Chain: A Partial Equilibrium Model for a Case Study in Alpine Area.” Journal of Cleaner Production 66 (2014): 431–442.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2013.11.059Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Develops and applies a decision-support system that combines financial analysis, technology analysis, and resource analysis in order to model the socioeconomic and environmental effects of various policy, technology, and biomass allocation scenarios.

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  • Sacchelli, Sandro, Giulia Garegnani, Francesco Geri, et al. “Trade-Off between Photovoltaic Systems Installation and Agricultural Practices on Arable Lands: An Environmental and Socio-economic Impact Analysis for Italy.” Land Use Policy 56 (2016): 90–99.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.landusepol.2016.04.024Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Develops and applies a framework to compare the energy and environmental trade-offs between solar and biomass energy.

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  • Schneider, Laura C., Ann P. Kinzig, Eric D. Larson, and Luis A. Solorzano. “Method for Spatially Explicit Calculations of Potential Biomass Yields and Assessment of Land Availability for Biomass Energy Production in Northeastern Brazil.” Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 84 (2001): 207–226.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0167-8809(00)00242-5Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Develops and applies a spatially explicit biogeophysical model to estimate biomass yields over a large region, for the purpose of planning for energy crop plantations while maintaining other land-use and ecosystem services.

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  • Sharma, Bhavna, Elke Brandes, Amit Khanchi, Stuart Birrell, Emily A. Heaton, and Fernando E. Miguez. “Evaluation of Microalgae Biofuel Production Potential and Cultivation Sites Using Geographic Information Systems: A Review.” Bioenergy Research 8 (2015): 1714–1734.

    DOI: 10.1007/s12155-015-9623-0Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    In contrast to many previous geographically explicit feasibility studies of microalgae production potential that characterize land as either feasible or not (binary), this study characterizes land along a gradient of least to most suitable. The feasibility of microalgae production most sensitive to constraints was found to be related to carbon dioxide and land availability.

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Economic Geography

Biofuel Supply Chains and Spatial Logistics

The spatial organization of the biofuel production systems and supply chains is critical to their economic performance (and environmental performance, as discussed above) (Rentizelas, et al. 2009; Nguyen, et al. 2014). Supply-chain approaches are therefore used to measure cost-benefit throughout the production system and to identify more efficient spatial patterns of organization in production, storage, conversion, and distribution. This work is conducted in agricultural centers (Kocoloski, et al. 2011; Lamers, et al. 2015) and in forestry centers (Noon and Daly 1996; Rentizelas, et al. 2009; Blair, et al. 2013; Grilli, et al. 2017). Key points of emphasis in this work include the need to manage transport costs, as well as the related issue of where and how to aggregate and store large quantities of biomass. Economies of scale have been shown to be especially important for biorefining technologies with high capital costs per unit of feedstock processed, such as cellulosic ethanol, more so than for technologies with relatively low capital costs and poor economies of scale, such as wood pellets (Stephen, et al. 2014). A smaller subset of the literature has examined the benefits of colocating new biofuel production plants with existing facilities; colocation can help to reduce investment/infrastructure costs and increase access to existing biomass supply (Sharma, et al. 2017).

  • Blair, Margaret J., Kirby E. Calvert, Nathan Manion, Sinead Earley, and Warren E. Mabee. “Linking Analysis of Market and Material Flow to Inform Canadian Forest Biorefinery Development.” Journal of Science and Technology for Forest Products and Processes 3 (2013): 1–15.

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    The challenge of high feedstock costs in forest-based biofuel production might be overcome if production centers were strategically located within clusters of existing wood processing facilities. The paper works toward a proof-of-concept of this siting strategy.

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  • Grilli, Gianluca, Giulia Garegnani, Francesco Geri, and Marco Ciolli. “Cost-Benefit Analysis with GIS: An Open Source Module for the Forest Bioenergy Sector.” Energy Procedia 107 (2017): 175–179.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.egypro.2016.12.164Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Uses the GRASS GIS system to develop a method to identify the most suitable (profitable) site for a new biomass power plant.

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  • Kocoloski, Matt, W. Michael Griffin, and H. Scott Matthews. “Impacts of Facility Size and Location Decisions on Ethanol Production Cost.” Energy Policy 39 (2011): 47–56.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2010.09.003Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Uses mixed integer programming to develop a model that estimates ethanol production costs based on facility siting and transport requirements. Facilities tend to be located based on political priorities, but these “objective” siting decisions could reduce costs by up to $0.25 per gallon of ethanol.

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  • Lamers, Patrick, Eric C. D. Tan, Erin M. Searcy, Christopher J. Scarlata, Kara G. Cafferty, and Jacob J. Jacobson. “Strategic Supply System Design—A Holistic Evaluation of Operational and Production Cost for a Biorefinery Supply Chain.” Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biorefining 9.6 (2015): 648–660.

    DOI: 10.1002/bbb.1575Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Incorporating depots to aggregate biomass from many regions, rather than being connected directly to growers, helps to mitigate a risk of disruption to feedstock supply. Although this incorporates an added transaction, it reduces overall costs across the system.

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  • Nguyen, Long, Kara G. Cafferty, Erin M. Searcy, and Sabrina Spatari. “Uncertainties in Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Advanced Biomass Feedstock Logistics Supply Chains in Kansas.” Energies 7 (2014): 7125–7146.

    DOI: 10.3390/en7117125Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Makes the crucial point that biomass transport, which depends in part on its spatial density and distribution, is a big source of uncertainty in the net greenhouse gas benefits of biofuel production.

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  • Noon, Charles E., and Michael J. Daly. “GIS-Based Biomass Resource Assessment with BRAVO.” Biomass and Bioenergy 10 (1996): 101–109.

    DOI: 10.1016/0961-9534(95)00065-8Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Among the earliest spatial decision-support systems to help understand biofuel production potential and investment opportunities across a region.

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  • Rentizelas, Athanasios A., Athanasios J. Tolis, and Ilias P. Tatsiopolous. “Logistics Issues of Biomass: The Storage Problem and the Multi-biomass Supply Chain.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 13 (2009): 887–894.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.rser.2008.01.003Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Develops and applies a GIS-based framework to model various supply chain configurations for biomass-to-energy production systems. Multi-biomass feedstock streams combined with relatively expensive storage solutions provide system-wide cost efficiencies.

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  • Sharma, Bhavna, Stuart Birrell, and Fernando E. Miguez. “Spatial Modeling Framework for Bioethanol Plant Siting and Biofuel Production Potential in the U.S.” Applied Energy 191 (2017): 75–86.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.apenergy.2017.01.015Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Combines a facility siting tool and biomass yield tool to identify sites across the United States that might be suitable for biorefining. Miscanthus is identified as the most promising energy crop under the parameters and scenarios included in the study.

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  • Stephen, James D., Warren E. Mabee, and Jack N. Saddler. “The Ability of Cellulosic Ethanol to Compete for Feedstock and Investment with Other Forest Bioenergy Options.” Industrial Biotechnology 10 (2014): 115–125.

    DOI: 10.1089/ind.2013.0027Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    An in-depth analysis of the relative production costs and market potential of forest-based ethanol relative to conventional forest-based products.

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Biofuels and International Development Studies

Connected to this research is work that situates biofuel production in the context of international political economies. Here, biomass flows are traced in and through regional and global economies, with increasing emphasis on the role of institutions, environmental governance mechanisms (e.g., sustainability certification systems around wood pellets), and policy-driven market changes in reshaping those flows (Solomon, et al. 2007; Moncada, et al. 2017). Building on this work, researchers are asking questions about the benefits of biofuel policies and trade for poor and marginalized countries and populations. This work is situated in the context of social and environmental justice, asking questions about how the economic benefits are distributed (distributional justice), but also about the role of local communities in making decisions about how and where biofuels are produced (procedural justice) (Baka 2013; Mingorria, et al. 2014; Aha and Ayitey 2017; see also Hunsberger, et al. 2014, cited under Governance Challenges). This area of research is discussed in greater depth in the Political Ecology section below. The study of traditional biofuels such as firewood and dung cakes has received attention from scholars working in the general area of development geography, where efforts center on the relationship between biofuels and socioeconomic development. This scholarship is framed by international development efforts that situate traditional biofuels at the bottom of an “energy ladder” and aim to foster the transition to cleaner, higher-energy fuels such as natural gas. Taylor, et al. 2011, for example, studies the contribution of remittances between the United States and Guatemala in helping poor households in Guatemala add liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) to their fuel mix. The authors note that households continue at least a partial reliance on firewood in order to hedge against future price increases of LPG. Indeed, case-study research by geographers has long called the “energy ladder” concept into question. Hiemstra-van der Horst and Hovorka 2008 shows that the transition from traditional biomass to “modern” fuels such as LPG is not a linear process. As households accrue greater wealth, or as they are provided with incentives to use modern fuels, they do not completely abandon fuelwood, but complement it in a process that we might call “fuel stacking.” For a general overview of research within and beyond geography on the “energy ladder” concept and household level energy transitions, see van der Kroon, et al. 2013.

  • Aha, Bismark, and Jonathan Z. Ayitey. “Biofuels and the Hazards of Land Grabbing: Tenure (In)Security and Indigenous Farmers’ Investment Decisions in Ghana.” Land Use Policy 60 (2017): 48–59.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.landusepol.2016.10.012Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Studies the tensions that emerge between land managers and local indigenous farmers as the former begin to engage in transnational land deals for biofuel production. Tenure insecurity felt among indigenous farmers is a disincentive to continue farming, threatening community and food security.

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  • Baka, Jennifer. “The Political Construction of Wasteland: Governmentality, Land Acquisition and Social Inequality in South India.” Development and Change 44 (2013): 409–428.

    DOI: 10.1111/dech.12018Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Critically unpacks the political apparatus behind the concept of “wasteland” in India, and studies how this concept was used by the state to displace agrarian communities and transition to wage-labor economies.

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  • Hiemstra-van der Horst, Greg, and Alice J. Hovorka. “Reassessing the ‘Energy Ladder’: Household Energy Use in Maun, Botswana.” Energy Policy 36 (2008): 3333–3344.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2008.05.006Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Questions the value of “transition” as a concept to help understand changes in household-level fuel choices. Household decision-makers blend multiple kinds of fuel sources, rather than abandon traditional fuel sources, in order to mitigate against risk of future supply disruption or price increases.

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  • Mingorria, Sara, Gonzalo Gamboa, Berta Martín-López, and Esteve Corbera. “The Oil Palm Boom: Socio-economic Implications for Q’eqchi’ Households in the Polochic Valley, Guatemala.” Environment, Development and Sustainability 16 (2014): 841–871.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10668-014-9530-0Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Views the shift from maize to oil palm production in terms of social “well-being.” This shift was shown to reduce food security and reduce the time spent in leisure among women.

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  • Moncada, Jorge A., Zofia Lukszo, Martin Junginger, André P. C. Faaij, and Margot Weijnen. “A Conceptual Framework for the Analysis of the Effect of Institutions on Biofuel Supply Chains.” Applied Energy 185 (2017): 895–915.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.apenergy.2016.10.070Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Agent-based modeling was used to understand the response of investors to new institutional frameworks; the authors argue that patterns in production capacity can be explained by investor perceptions of the relationship between policies and market development.

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  • Solomon, Barry D., Justin R. Barnes, and Kathleen E. Halvorsen. “Grain and Cellulosic Ethanol: History, Economics, and Energy Policy.” Biomass and Bioenergy 31 (2007): 416–425.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.biombioe.2007.01.023Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A general overview of the emerging ethanol market, focusing on key market and policy changes and where they have occurred. Analysis suggests that, in theory, cellulosic ethanol is nearing economic competitiveness. Policy and market changes that might accelerate cellulosic ethanol are identified and reviewed.

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  • Taylor, Matthew J., Michelle J. Moran-Taylor, Edwin J. Castellanos, and Silvel Elias. “Burning for Sustainability: Biomass Energy, International Migration, and the Move to Cleaner Fuels and Cookstoves in Guatemala.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 101 (2011): 918–928.

    DOI: 10.1080/00045608.2011.568881Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This paper identifies the role of remittances coming from abroad in helping to shape the transition from wood to liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) by increasing the purchasing power of households. Despite increased income, however, households continue to prefer wood because of its familiarity and to avoid the risk of rapid increases in LPG prices or lost income.

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  • van der Kroon, Bianca, Roy Brouwer, and Pieter J. H. van Beukering. “The Energy Ladder: Theoretical Myth or Empirical Truth? Results from a Meta-analysis.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 20 (2013): 504–513.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.rser.2012.11.045Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A meta-analysis and overview of the theory that individuals and households will transition toward more dense fuels as income rises.

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Biofuels and Regional Economic Development

Recent scholarship in the general area of economic geography has also centered on the development and use of “advanced biofuels,” framed by efforts to displace fossil fuels with biomass-derived alternatives for climate change mitigation, energy security, and rural economic development. A related stream of research to that discussed above has focused on the local and regional economic benefits of biofuels in developed nations. Much of this work is situated in the context of better understanding the social costs and benefits of biofuels generally (de Gorter and Just 2010; Stürmer, et al. 2013). Particularly notable is work on the potential role of biofuels to stimulate reinvestment in forestry regions that have suffered from economic collapse in the wake of lost markets for pulp and paper production (Solomon 2009; Blair, et al. 2013 [cited under Biofuel Supply Chains and Spatial Logistics]; Blair, et al. 2017). In all cases, there are various economic trade-offs and implications on how costs and benefits are allocated depending on how value-chains are designed and governed (Branca, et al. 2016). Ehrenfeld and Kropfhäußer 2017 analyzes and compares the emergence of sociopolitical networks within three Central German states, and questions the optimistic assumptions about the benefits to rural areas of biomass-based economic development.

  • Blair, M. Jean, Laura Cabral, and Warren E. Mabee. “Biorefinery Strategies: Exploring Approaches to Developing Forest-Based Biorefinery Activities in British Columbia and Ontario, Canada.” Technology Analysis and Strategic Management 29 (2017): 528–541.

    DOI: 10.1080/09537325.2016.1211266Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The paper juxtaposes two approaches to forest-based biofuel production: centralized and decentralized. Based on regional case studies, the authors explore how geographic context shapes the opportunities and challenges related to each option.

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  • Branca, Giacomo, Luca Cacchiarelli, Irini Maltsoglou, Luis Rincon, Alessandro Sorrentino, and Stefano Valle. “Profits versus Jobs: Evaluating Alternative Biofuel Value-Chains in Tanzania.” Land Use Policy 57 (2016): 229–240.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.landusepol.2016.05.014Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Identifies a tension between large-scale estate-farming investment strategies and investment strategies that include smallholders. The former are more internationally competitive, while the latter bring greater gains to local rural communities.

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  • de Gorter, Harry, and David R. Just. “The Social Costs and Benefits of Biofuels: The Intersection of Environmental, Energy, and Agricultural Policy.” Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 32.1 (2010): 4–32.

    DOI: 10.1093/aepp/ppp010Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Finds that ethanol policies can cause inefficiencies in existing farm subsidy programs, and highlights the conditions under which biofuel sustainability standards may conflict with international trade rules.

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  • Ehrenfeld, Wilfried and Frieder Kropfhäußer. “Plant-Based Bioeconomy in Central Germany—A Mapping of Actors, Industries and Places.” Technology Analysis and Strategic Management 29 (2017): 514–527.

    DOI: 10.1080/09537325.2016.1140135Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Develops a method to identify firms and actors across bioeconomic supply chains, and provides some evidence to suggest that wealth and other benefits related to the bioeconomy actually accrue in cities, not in rural areas as common discourse suggests.

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  • Solomon, Barry D. “Regional Economic Impacts of Cellulosic Ethanol Development in the North Central States.” In Renewable Energy from Forest Resources in the United States. Edited by Barry D. Solomon and Valerie A. Luzadis, 281–298. London and New York: Routledge, 2009.

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    Assesses the potential costs and benefits at a regional scale of forest-based ethanol production in a forest-intensive region of the United States. Through economic modeling, the long-term employment and population effects of a commercial-scale forest biorefinery are shown to be minimal in terms of the number of people directly employed. Region-wide revenue from sales and economic activity are significant, however, especially in regions that rely almost exclusively on the forest industry.

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  • Stürmer, Bernhard, Johannes Schmidt, Erwin Schmid, and Franz Sinabell. “Implications of Agricultural Bioenergy Crop Production in a Land Constrained Economy—The Example of Austria.” Land Use Policy 30 (2013): 570–581.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.landusepol.2012.04.020Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Studies the impacts of biomass-for-energy production in the context of existing land-based economies. Assuming a land-constrained economy, food and land prices are increased along with the use of fertilizers.

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Geographies of Innovation and Economic Transition

Biofuels are often discussed in the broader context of a potential shift toward a “bioeconomy,” which indicates a transition from fossil fuels to biomass as the underpinning natural resource base for socioeconomic activity. Many national governments and international institutions are promoting this effort. From a broader “bioeconomy” perspective, biofuels are used as a case study to better understand sociotechnical transitions processes and outcomes (for a general review and introduction to a special issue, see Calvert, et al. 2017). A few insights are worth highlighting here. First, differences in social proximity (and institutional compatibility) between biofuels and conventional biomass-based industries can partly explain differential biofuel production outcomes between the forestry and agricultural sectors. Hansen and Coenen 2017 demonstrates that incumbent pulp and paper actors share very few value systems and practices with emerging technologies and their associated markets and actors, thus delaying uptake of potentially viable technologies. In many agricultural centers, meanwhile, farmers have established a deeper and more direct connection with fuel markets through cooperatives (Calvert, et al. 2017, cited under General Overviews). Furthermore, agricultural centers seem to have a more coherent industry value chain, which establishes conditions for biofuels to thrive and, in turn, limits the introduction of forestry-based biofuels into the market (Kedron 2015, Kedron and Bagchi-Sen 2017). Second, how biofuels and bioeconomies emerge in place depends at least in part on how the geographies and futures of sociotechnical transitions are imagined. Gillon 2014 (cited under Sustainability of Biofuels Accounting for Land-Use Change) and Palmer 2014 both illustrate the contrary ways that biofuels are represented, accounted for, and understood in the United States and European Union, respectively. In a slightly different vein, Birch 2016 shows how competing visions of a bioeconomy in the Canadian context lead to the fragmentation of policy frameworks, providing a comparative analysis to more frequent studies of places like the EU (e.g., Levidow, et al. 2012). Finally, transition processes and outcomes are shown to be “geographically co-constitutive.” On one hand, the transition to biofuels is deeply embedded in prevailing social and biophysical contexts. Eaton, et al. 2014, for example, unpacks the cultural geographies that underpin where and under what conditions emerging technologies are deployed and transitions unfold. On the other hand, the transition to biofuels is a fundamental driver of broader social and biophysical change, at least in part because biomass resources have very different material properties than fossilized resources (Birch and Calvert 2015).

  • Birch, Kean. “Emergent Policy Imaginaries and Fragmented Policy Frameworks in the Canadian Bio-economy.” Sustainability 8.10 (2016): 1–16.

    DOI: 10.3390/su8101007Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Identifies and unpacks differences in the visions underpinning the role of biofuels in the Canadian economy and trade relationship, and how those different visions lead to a fragmented policy framework. Biofuels are one of a number of opportunities for biomass, and decisions about the “best use” of biomass is political, making the development of a common strategic vision of “bioeconomy” difficult.

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  • Birch, Kean, and Kirby E. Calvert. “Rethinking ‘Drop-In’ Biofuels: On the Political Materialities of Bioenergy.” Journal of Science and Technology Studies 28.1 (2015): 52–72.

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    Biofuel supply chains will be much more decentralized, land-intensive, and visible than petro-fuel supply chains due to physical differences between biomass feedstock and petroleum feedstock. These differences, and their resultant implications on political and economic life, problematize the notion of a “drop-in biofuel.”

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  • Calvert, Kirby E., Peter Kedron, Jennifer Baka, and Kean Birch. “Geographical Perspectives on Sociotechnical Transitions and Emerging Bio-economies: Introduction to a Special Issue.” Technology Analysis and Strategic Management 29 (2017): 477–485.

    DOI: 10.1080/09537325.2017.1300643Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    An overview of how concepts and techniques from geography have contributed to debates about sociotechnical transitions. Argues that sociotechnical transitions theory can benefit from more formal dialogue with environmental geographers.

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  • Eaton, Weston M., Stephen P. Gasteyer, and Lawrence Busch. “Bioenergy Futures: Framing Sociotechnical Imaginaries in Local Places.” Rural Sociology 79 (2014): 227–256.

    DOI: 10.1111/ruso.12027Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Uses the concept of “sociotechnical imaginaries” to show the prominence of collective memories of place in shaping social responses to prospective bioenergy production.

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  • Hansen, Teis, and Lars Coenen. “Unpacking Resource Mobilisation by Incumbents for Biorefineries: The Role of Micro-Level Factors for Technological Innovation System Weaknesses.” Technology Analysis and Strategic Management 29 (2017): 500–513.

    DOI: 10.1080/09537325.2016.1249838Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Identifies and theorizes the firm-level barriers to adopting new biorefining technologies in the pulp and paper industry. Specifically, it identifies preferences for improving existing technologies, rather than technology restructuring and insufficient competencies and partnerships in biofuel markets, as barriers to expanding mills into biorefineries.

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  • Kedron, Peter. “Environmental Governance and Shifts in Canadian Biofuel Production and Innovation.” Professional Geographer 67 (2015): 385–395.

    DOI: 10.1080/00330124.2014.983589Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Unpacks the role of environmental governance mechanisms in (re)shaping the way biofuel production systems organize spatially. Identifies access to technology and the ability to navigate the emerging global governance context as crucial to success and to supply chain configuration.

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  • Kedron, Peter, and Sharmistha Bagchi-Sen. “Limits to Policy-Led Innovation and Industry Development in US Biofuels.” Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 29 (2017): 486–499.

    DOI: 10.1080/09537325.2016.1227066Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The US biofuel industry is currently dominated by corn-based production—a cycle that is hard to break by policy alone. The development of a switchgrass-based biofuel industry is challenged by the lack of a single, stable supply chain or technology pathway.

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  • Levidow, Les, Kean Birch, and Theo Papaioannou. “EU Agri-Innovation Policy: Two Contending Visions of the Knowledge-Based Bio-Economy.” Critical Policy Studies 6.1 (2012): 40–66.

    DOI: 10.1080/19460171.2012.659881Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Research policy aimed at developing bioeconomies are guided by two competing visions: a life-sciences vision focused on gaining global advantage, and an agroecology vision focused on farmer benefits and shorter value chains. The paper unpacks how competing visions are manifest in policy; in this case, the former tends to be favored in EU agri-innovation policy.

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  • Palmer, James R. “Biofuels and the Politics of Land-Use Change: Tracing the Interactions of Discourse and Place in European Policy Making.” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 46.2 (2014): 337–352.

    DOI: 10.1068/a4684Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Examines the interaction between discourse and place-specific context in shaping the narrative underpinning the role of biofuels and land-use change. Shows that narratives are controlled at the micro-political scale, including controlling who sits next to whom in a meeting.

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Political Ecology

Land Grabbing

Biofuels present a new investment opportunity for biomass producers and landowners, fueling a “land rush.” These investment opportunities are increasingly seized by speculators and major corporations who purchase large tracts of land in developing nations. Proponents refer to this as a “land transaction” to imply a win-win scenario of foreign investment and job creation in a clean economy. But a growing literature has taken a critical perspective on the global land rush, referring to it as a process of “land grabbing” to invoke a sense of theft and frame the emerging bioeconomy as a new process of enclosure and exclusion (Boamah 2014; see also Hesse, et al. 2016; Baka 2014; and Baka 2017). Indeed, case-study research in Zimbabwe shows that local populations and displaced households did not feel consulted during the process of land acquisition and perceived the costs to far outweigh the benefits that proponents had promised (Thondhlana 2015). Land that is deemed “marginal” is valued for its macroeconomic potential, while its value for rural people and subsistence economies is dismissed. In other words, these lands are repurposed to serve the material needs of a distant population that wants to use a renewable fuel for their vehicles rather than petroleum. Ironically, an energy-balance analysis shows that wood foraging on marginal land by local populations is actually more efficient than the jatropha-to-biodiesel systems that displace the foraging system (Bailis and Baka 2011). Many of the tools deployed by the resource geographer discussed above have been critiqued—sometimes sympathetically, sometimes not—for participating in processes of enclosure and exclusion by framing land in terms of its potential for biofuel production and, in the process, marginalizing land for its other purposes (Nalepa and Bauer 2012; Millar 2015; Hesse, et al. 2016). Neville and Dauvergne 2012 examines the way in which land-use maps are used in combination with other images and forms of discourse in strategic ways in order to vie for control during the contentious politics of land that emerge in the context of biofuel production. Similar discursive strategies unfold to repurpose land toward biofuel production in a developed nation context. Climate change, for instance, is often invoked to justify provision of biofuels and situate land and biomass—rather than oil—as a key source of national security. Indeed, Hunsberger and Alonso-Fradejas 2016 notes that the material flexibility of biomass (i.e., its ability to be used for multiple purposes) is paired with a discursive flexibility (i.e., it is positioned in different ways by proponents to justify particular means and ends); the authors argue that understanding discursive flexibility is a pathway to understanding biofuel transitions generally, and potentially to contesting them.

  • Bailis, Robert, and Jennifer Baka. “Constructing Sustainable Biofuels: Governance of the Emerging Biofuel Economy.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 101 (2011): 827–838.

    DOI: 10.1080/00045608.2011.568867Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Examines the emerging multilevel governance regimes that are trying to minimize the negative impacts of biofuel production. Highlights the role of non-nation-state actors in these regimes, and the contradictions that have emerged in the development of biofuel sustainability standards.

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  • Baka, Jennifer. “What Wastelands? A Critique of Biofuel Policy Discourse in South India.” Geoforum 54 (2014): 315–323.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2013.08.007Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues that “marginal land” is a social construct and does not actually exist. Demonstrates that land considered “unproductive” through the lens of state-driven capitalist enterprises actually supports dynamic local economies, and therefore questions the idea that developing biofuels on marginal land is the win-win strategy that many biofuel proponents allege.

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  • Baka, Jennifer. “Making Space for Energy: Wasteland Development, Enclosures, and Energy Dispossessions.” Antipode 49.4 (2017): 977–996.

    DOI: 10.1111/anti.12219Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Uses the concept of “energy dispossessions” to illustrate how the transition to renewable energy, although widely considered to be sustainable, can also be used as a political-economic driver of land enclosure and the disintegration of local noncapitalist livelihoods.

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  • Boamah, Festus. “Imageries of the Contested Concepts ‘Land Grabbing’ and ‘Land Transactions’: Implications for Biofuels Investments in Ghana.” Geoforum 54 (2014): 324–334.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2013.10.009Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Unpacks narratives about the impacts of large-scale biofuel production in Ghana, juxtaposing those that represent it as a “win-win” outcome with those that represent it as social injustice. In the absence of weak land regulations and social ambivalence, the fate of biofuel investments is highly uncertain.

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  • Hesse, Arielle, Jennifer Baka, and Kirby E. Calvert. “Enclosure and Exclusion within Emerging Forms of Energy Resource Extraction: Shale Fuels and Biofuels.” In The Palgrave Handbook of the International Political Economy of Energy. Edited by Thijs Van de Graaf, Benjamin K. Sovacool, Arunabha Ghosh, Florian Kern, and Michael T. Klare, 641–660. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1057/978-1-137-55631-8_26Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Develops a comprehensive framework through which to understand processes of enclosure and exclusion, and applies the framework to case studies in shale fuels and biofuels. Makes the crucial point that enclosure and exclusion are simultaneously material and discursive practices.

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  • Hunsberger, Carol, and Alberto Alonso-Fradejas. “The Discursive Flexibility of ‘Flex Crops’: Comparing Oil Palm and Jatropha.” Journal of Peasant Studies 43 (2016): 225–250.

    DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2015.1052802Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This paper unpacks the range of discourses that help to shape how biomass is viewed and utilized, including synergies across legitimating discourses (e.g., climate change and rural development), as well as the role of discourses in bringing a common frame around otherwise very different forms of biomass.

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  • Millar, Gearoid. “Knowledge and Control in the Contemporary Land Rush: Making Local Land Legible and Corporate Power Applicable in Rural Sierra Leone.” Journal of Agrarian Change 16 (2015): 206–224.

    DOI: 10.1111/joac.12102Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Positions mapping and measuring techniques as “technologies of control” wielded by dominant actors to stake claims and control narratives. Unpacks the role of these technologies in the process of enclosure and exclusion. The new “diffusion of power” is not necessarily a bad thing, but it needs to be understood through more careful ethnographic studies.

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  • Nalepa, Rachel A., and Dana Marie Bauer. “Marginal Lands: The Role of Remote Sensing in Constructing Landscapes for Agrofuel Development.” Journal of Peasant Studies 39.2 (2012): 403–422.

    DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2012.665890Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Takes a case-study approach to understanding how land-use classification procedures actively construct “marginal land,” rendering local uses of land invisible through the process of remote sensing.

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  • Neville, Kate J., and Peter Dauvergne. “Biofuels and the Politics of Mapmaking.” Political Geography 31 (2012): 279–289.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.polgeo.2012.03.006Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Unpacks the role of mapping and counter-mapping in disputes over the use of land for biofuel production. States and firms are able to take advantage of uncertainty and ambiguity more than communities and locals can.

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  • Thondhlana, Gladman. “Land Acquisition for and Local Livelihood Implications of Biofuel Development in Zimbabwe.” Land Use Policy 49 (2015): 11–19.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.landusepol.2015.06.025Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Individuals who were directly impacted by land acquisitions for biofuel development felt ignored and negatively impacted, while those who were not directly impacted focused on perceived environmental benefits.

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Governance Challenges

A spate of governance changes at the national and international level have been designed to improve the sustainability of biofuels across the biofuel production chain. At the international level, and especially in the EU, most of these changes focus on carbon accounting related to indirect land-use change. Scholars have taken a critical view of carbon accounting approaches, suggesting that they reduce accountability to a simple act of measurement, and in doing so detract attention from core issues around social and environmental justice (Levidow 2013, Humalisto and Joronen 2013). Furthermore, scholars have examined the process by which standards and certification systems are established by government and nongovernment organizations through stewardship councils and sustainability roundtables, arguing that these processes tend to bias commercial initiatives and reinforce dominant power structures (Ponte 2014, Labruto 2014). Overall, it is clear that governing the sustainability of biofuels is plagued by contradictions and suffers from the usual challenges and politics of defining and assessing “sustainability” in the first place (Bailis and Baka 2011, cited under Land Grabbing; Gillon 2014, cited under Sustainability of Biofuels Accounting for Land-Use Change; Solomon 2010, cited under General Overviews). At the national level, efforts have been undertaken to focus on the development of biofuels from biomass sources that are inedible to humans. This policy shift is, at least in part, meant to reduce the impact of biofuel production on food prices. Technology challenges and well-established political-economic linkages in food-based biofuel production have proven difficult to overcome (Kedron 2015, cited under Geographies of Innovation and Economic Transition).

  • Humalisto, Niko Humalisto, and Mikko Joronen. “Looking Beyond Calculative Spaces of Biofuels: Onto-topologies of Indirect Land Use Changes.” Geoforum 50 (2013): 182–190.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2013.09.013Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues that calculative models used to understand iLUC, and the governance models derived from those understandings, are overly simplistic and therefore doomed to fail.

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  • Hunsberger, Carol, Simon Bolwig, Esteve Corbera, and Felix Creutzig. “Livelihood Impacts of Biofuel Crop Production: Implications for Governance.” Geoforum 54 (2014): 248–260.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2013.09.022Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Biofuel policies focus too narrowly on economic development and carbon mitigation, and therefore insufficiently account for their impacts on livelihoods more broadly. The article brings literature on governance and certification to biofuels to suggest that biofuel governance should emphasize equity across income, food, and land access through some form of a multi-criteria approach.

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  • Labruto, Nicole. “Experimental Biofuel Governance: Historicizing Social Certification in Brazilian Ethanol Production.” Geoforum 54 (2014): 272–281.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2014.02.011Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Weak regulations and government oversight compromised the effectiveness and legitimacy of an industry-led sustainability certification system for Brazilian ethanol.

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  • Levidow, Les. “EU Criteria for Sustainable Biofuels: Accounting for Carbon, Depoliticising Plunder.” Geoforum 44 (2013): 211–223.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2012.09.005Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This paper argues that a narrow view on carbon accounting channels debates into modeling methods and uncertainties, and therefore “depoliticizes” the conversation over the broader impacts of biofuel production.

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  • Ponte, Stefrano. “‘Roundtabling’ Sustainability: Lessons from the Biofuel Industry.” Geoforum 54 (2014): 261–271.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2013.07.008Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Industry roundtables to help set sustainability certifications for biofuels were found to result in certification schemes that favored large producers in the “Global North.” The paper provides suggestions on how to ensure that roundtable-based certification systems are more democratic and equitable.

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