By ADRIAN SMITH, STEPS Centre member

Last week, Achim Steiner, head of UNEP, and one of the sponsors of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, joined an increasingly audible group of voices arguing for a system of sustainability standards for biofuels. Without such a system, operating robustly at the international level, Achim feared a backlash against all biofuels, due to some currently more unsustainable production processes associated with rainforest loss, a net increase in total carbon emissions, and the dispossession of poorer communities. The European Commission is currently considering how best to develop its own certification system in order to assure that its ten per cent target for biofuel use in transportation by 2010.

What is incredible about recent biofuel enthusiasm is the widespread acknowledgement that it could quite easily generate disastrously unsustainable developments, if pathways are not carefully appraised and guided. At the same time, this open acknowledgement is also reassuring, since it opens space for sustainability governance.

Clearly, a system of production standards is an important issue in biofuel development, and needs to be taken seriously. And yet, biofuels raise serious sustainability issues that are highly place and process specific: questions of land use, water supply, and food security; the delicate carbon and energy balances involved; risks and benefits for the rural poor; agro-industrial development and jobs; health and safety for workers and local communities; public revenues for government; local fuel security and trade justice; and the biodiversity implications of bringing marginal land into biofuel production. On these grounds and others, advocates and critics heatedly debate biofuel development.

There are a variety of biofuel development options available. Each presents different sustainability opportunities and challenges. Depending upon local agronomic conditions, one can choose between different raw material inputs, such as maize, sugar, jatropha, palm oil, wood, waste, and so on. One can decide between decentralised and centralised systems of provision. One can invest in researching ‘second generation’ biofuel processing, whose conversion efficiencies are expected to be higher, and whose raw materials do not compete so directly with food production, compared to proven ‘first generation’ biofuels processing technologies using food crops.

Within each broad option category lie more nuanced issues, such as the roles of biotechnology, links with the fossil fuel sector, transferable skills and technologies, comparative local, national and regional advantages, the relative economic and sustainability priorities of backers, and so on.

Innovation systems are emerging, linking and informing one another across diverse sites around the globe in strategic response to, and pursuit of, some or all the above issues and options. When considering any innovation system in the light of sustainability, but perhaps more acutely for biofuels, research cannot limit oneself to measuring the aggregate rate and scale of activity – as tends to be the case in conventional innovation studies regarding contributions to narrow measures of economic growth.

Sustainability analysis has also to address the direction of innovation: the biofuel pathways being articulated in innovation systems, the assumptions and criteria informing the search for successful biofuel practices, and the uncertainties and contingencies developers have to deal with when committing resources to biofuel developments.

All this suggests standards, and the lifecycle studies underpinning them, are only part of the picture. What is needed desperately are more socially- and politically-informed insights that can inform a broader set of more reflexive governance processes able to frame, shape and steer biofuel innovations along Sustainable pathways. Here at the STEPS Centre a number of us are developing research ideas that aim to contribute to such an endeavour.