Biofuels; sustainable innovation or gold rush?

Biofuels are controversial. Policy makers and other stakeholders are struggling to find answers to how, and under which conditions sustainability could be realised, and how to encourage sustainable practices through guidelines and norms (e.g., derived from the Cramer Criteria). This research aims to address these strategic questions by investigating conceptual, ethical and political aspects of sustainability of biofuels. We study different organizational models for production and use, and their institutional and policy governance; value- and resource trade-offs arising between economic, social and environmental sustainability dimensions generated by these different models; and their relation to societal controversies. We then probe how contestations influence future development of biofuel technologies, and draw policy lessons.

We study an early 2nd generation biofuel, Jatropha curcas L., and derive implications for more advanced 2nd generation biofuels. Jatropha’s tropical habitat raises issues of moral (in)justice and geopolitics associated with massive land-grab investments in poor countries by rich-country parties. We thus explore institutional and policy governance of ‘sustainable’ initiatives at multiple interconnected levels, from the local to the global.
We compare two Jatropha frontrunner countries – Tanzania and India – and their links to policies and investments from EU countries. Interviews with key stakeholders will focus on evolving practices in different production models; networking; sustainability values; tradeoff experiences; and contestations related to, e.g., impacts on local livelihoods and ecosystem diversity. Policy documents will be studied to understand how policies shape governance and practices. Extant studies about Jatropha’s carbon debt, financial viability, and ecosystem effects will complement these primary sources.

Project team:
Dr. H.A. (Henny) Romijn, Associate Professor of Technology and Development Studies, School of Innovation Sciences, Eindhoven University of Technology; member of the Netherlands Graduate Research School on Science, Technology and Modern Culture (WTMC).

Prof. dr. ir. G.P.J. Verbong, Professor of Systems Innovation & Sustainability, School of Innovation Sciences, Eindhoven University of Technology.

Dr. A. (Andreas) Spahn, Assistant Professor of Ethics and Technology, School of Innovation Sciences, Eindhoven University of Technology, and 3TU Centre of Ethics and Technology.

Dr. S. (Saurabh) Arora, Senior Lecturer in Technology and Innovation for Development, SPRU, University of Sussex, UK.

Dr. Ir. Q.C. (Rinie) van Est, Research coordinator of the Technology Assessment program of the Rathenau Institute, including the project Bio-based Economy.

Dr. A.J.K. (Auke) Pols, Post-doc, Philosophy & Ethics, School of Innovation Sciences, Eindhoven University of Technology.

Dr. ir A.J. (Annelies) Balkema, (until Nov 2013) Post-doc, Technology and Development Studies, School of Innovation Sciences, Eindhoven University of Technology.

E. (Evelien) de Hoop MPhil, PhD-Student, Technology and Development Studies, School of Innovation Sciences, Eindhoven University of Technology.

Dr. K.N. (Karoli) Njau, Associate Professor at the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology, Arusha, Tanzania.

Dr. V. (Vamsi) Vakulabharanam, Assistant Professor in Economics, University of Hyderabad, India.

Research Embedding:
This research is part of the School of Innovation Sciences of the TU/e, and sponsored by the NWO MVI program “Responsible Innovation" (Maatschappelijk Verantwoord Innoveren).

Project kick-off:  1 May 2011.

Workshops and conferences:
From 13-14 April 2015 we held an international scientific conference on "Biofuels and (ir)responsible innovation: tensions between policy, practice and sustainable development." The report from this conference can be found here.

Conference: Biofuels and (ir)responsible innovation: tensions between policy, practice and sustainable development. 

The first day of the conference was devoted to scientific research; the second day brought scientists in contact with policy-makers and other societal stakeholders to discuss practical implications of the research presented.

Keynote speakers (scientific):
- Dr. Jennifer Baka (the London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK)
- Dr. Atakilte Beyene (The Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala, Sweden)
- Dr. Carol Hunsberger (University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada)
- Dr. Lena Partzsch (Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, Germany)
- Dr. Joachim Spangenberg (UFZ Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Halle, Germany)

Keynote speakers (society):
- Drs. Nathalie van Haren (Both ENDS)
- Dr. Han van Kasteren (TU/e Innovation Lab)
- Dr. André Krom (Rathenau Instituut)
- Drs. Arthur van Mansvelt (Triodos Bank)

For as long as biofuels have prominently appeared in EU policy, they have been a contested energy source. Crops such as jatropha have been hailed as ‘wonder crop’, only to experience an ‘extraordinary collapse’ within a decade. From the food vs. fuel discussion to indirect land use change, wicked problems have plagued biofuel developments and continue to provoke disagreement between societal actors. The impacts of biofuels’ tumultuous history have been felt particularly in the Global South, where land grabbing and opportunistic behavior of investors have caused great social and ecological problems.

Proponents of biofuels claim that this is all the more reason to continue with investments and innovation: new sources of biofuels, such as plant residues and algae, will eventually solve all our problems. Given the great uncertainties and past harms, however, these claims should not be accepted lightly, nor should we assume that all encountered problems are technology-specific. Rather, we should realize that biofuels as a case study raise fundamental questions with regard to policy and governance, responsible innovation and sustainable development.

This conference is devoted to addressing these fundamental questions from a multidisciplinary perspective. As such, we have contributions from (but not limited to) the following disciplines: development studies; economics; environmental studies; ethics; policy studies; political ecology; science and technology studies and sociology. These contributions tie together the following themes:

Biofuels and biofuel policy
Much research in this area has been on next-generation biofuels and sustainability criteria, but to what extent are these sufficient to solve today’s problems? What exactly have we learnt from our experiences with first-generation biofuels? What actors, ideas and arguments shape biofuel developments? Is the current neoliberalist division of labor between governments and markets adequate to achieve a sustainable transport energy system? Are there reasons for abandoning biofuels altogether, and if so, what would be better ways to achieve energy security, mitigate climate change and contribute to rural development?

Responsible innovation
Past problems in biofuel innovations suggest that it is time to explore the limits of the responsible innovation framework. Can all innovations be made responsible, and if not, under what conditions and for what purposes should we stop or prevent innovations? How do we balance the need for flexibility with demands for investor security and stable, long-term policy? Do responsible innovation frameworks adequately take cultural and situational factors into account? Schumpeter has characterized innovation as ‘creative destruction’: what exactly has been destroyed in biofuel innovations, who has paid the cost, who has benefited, and has it been worth it? How can we stimulate societal stakeholders to share information on failed projects to improve learning and prevent reoccurrence?

Sustainable development
Biofuel cultivation has caused social and environmental harms more often than not, particularly in the Global South. Can biofuel cultivation contribute to local sustainable development, and if so, how? Current policy and practices tend to focus on sustainability certification: is this necessary and sufficient for achieving sustainable biofuel development, or are there better alternatives? Are there social entrepreneurship models that combine market efficiency with strong ethical ideals and alleviation of extreme poverty? Are just stakeholder involvement processes possible in a global trade that is characterized by vast distances and power differences?

Organisation: Evelien de Hoop, MPhil; dr. Auke Pols; dr. Henny Romijn (Eindhoven University of Technology).


In January 2013 we organized an international scientific workshop:
 "Tracing biofuel transitions: Policies, practices and phase-outs"

Project outputs - scientific:

Arora, S., Romijn, H.A., Caniëls, M.C.J. (2014) Emergence of a biofuel economy in Tanzania: Local developments and global connections from an institutional perspective. Industrial and Corporate Change 23(2), 573-607.

Balkema A.J., Q.C. van Est , H.A. Romijn (2012) 'Optimizing decision making in the global biofuel chain for sustainable development', paper presented at the 2012 Berlin Conference on the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change, “Evidence for Sustainable Development”, Berlin, 5-6 October 2012 (available online: Link).

Balkema, A.J. and Pols, A.J.K. (2015). Biofuels; Sustainable innovation or gold rush? Identifying responsibilities for biofuel innovations. In: van den Hoven, J., Koops, E. J., Romijn, H. A., Swierstra, T.E., Oosterlaken, I. (Eds) Responsible Innovation. Volume II. Dordrecht: Springer.

Balkema, A.J. and H.A. Romijn (2015) 'Innovative business models for sustainable biofuel production: the case of Tanzanian smallholder jatropha farmers in the global biofuel chain', in: R. Hamann, M. Hall, E. Wosu Griffin-EL, V. Bitzer (Eds) The Business of Social and Environmental Innovation. New Frontiers in Africa. London: Springer and Cape Town: UCT Press, pp. 75-100.

Bryant, S.T. and H.A. Romijn (2014) 'Not quite the end for jatropha? A case study of the financial viability of biodiesel production from jatropha in Tanzania'. Energy for Sustainable Development. doi: 10.1016/j.esd.2014.09.006.

van Eijck J.A.J., Balkema, A.J. Romijn, H.A., Faaij, A. (2014). Global experience with jatropha cultivation for bioenergy: an assessment of socio-economic and environmental aspects. Renewable & Sustainable Energy Reviews 32, 869-889.

van Eijck, J.A.J., Romijn, H.A., Smeets, E., Bailis, R., Rooijakkers, M., Hooijkaas, N., Verweij, P., Faaij, A.P.C. (2014) Comparative analysis of key socio-economic and environmental impacts of smallholder and plantation based jatropha biofuel production systems in Tanzania. Biomass and Bioenergy 61, 25-45.

Hellings, B.F., Romijn, H.A., and Franken, Y.J. (2012) 'Carbon storage in Jatropha curcas in Northern Tanzania', FACT Working Paper.

de Hoop, E., Arora, A. (in draft). Material meanings: Historicizing the Indian ‘wasteland’ as a performative classifier. Paper presented at the European social history conference, Vienna, Austria, 23-26 April 2014.

de Hoop, E., Arora, A., (in draft). Registering Difference, Encouraging Dissent? An Analysis of Indian Biofuel Policy as ‘Good Environmental Politics’. Paper presented at EASST 2014, Torun, Poland, 17-19 September 2014.

Pols, A.J.K. (2013) Certification for sustainable biofuels. In H. Röcklinsberg & P. Sandin (Eds) Proceedings of the 11th Congress of the European Society for Agricultural and Food Ethics (Eursafe2013): The ethics of consumption: The citizen, the market and the law, 11-14 September 2013, Uppsala, Sweden, (pp. 77-82). Wageningen: Wageningen Academic Publishers.

Pols, A.J.K. and H.A. Romijn (2013) 'Irreversible social change', in: Proceedings of the 50th Societas Ethica Annual Conference on Climate Change, Sustainability, and an Ethics of an Open Future, Soesterberg, 22-25 Aug 2013, LiU Electronic Press, Linköping, paper 98:007, pp. 65-85.

Pols, A.J.K. and Spahn, A. (2013). Biofuels: ethical issues. In: Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics. P.B. Thompson and D.M. Kaplan (Eds) Springer. Online at:
(printed book version still forthcoming).

Romijn, H.A. and J. Gevaert (2013) Jatropha: From Wonder to Whither? Insights from a Tanzanian Social Business Venture 2005-2013. In: Blin, J., Mouras, S., Wadre, A. and Voron, A. (Eds) Collection Actes de Conférences du 4ème Conférence Biocarburants Bioénergies, 21-23 Novembre 2013 organisée par 2iE, CIRAD and Ministère des Mines et de l‘Énergie de Burkina Faso. 2iE / Éditions Sud Sciences et Technologies: Ouagadougou, pp. 16-24.

Romijn, H.A., Heijnen, S., Rom Colthoff, J., de Jong, B. and van Eijck, J.A.J. (2014) 'Economic and social sustainability performance of jatropha projects: results from field surveys in Mozambique, Tanzania and Mali', Sustainability, 6 (9): 6203-6235.

Romijn, H.A., Heijnen, S., Arora, S. (2013) Standardizing Sustainability: Certifying Tanzanian biofuel smallholders in a global supply chain. In: A. Lindgreen, S. Sen, F. Maon and J. Vanhamme (Eds) Sustainable Value Chain Management: A Research Anthology. Burlington: Gower, pp. 473-487.

Project outputs - professional and popular:
Eijck, J.A.J.van, J. Rom Colthoff, H.A. Romijn, S. Heijnen, F. de Ruijter, R.J.J. Jongschaap (2013) Jatropha sustainability assessment: Data from Tanzania, Mali and Mozambique, NL Agency, Netherlands Programmes for Sustainable Biomass, Utrecht. PDF available here.

de Hoop, E. (2014). Biobrandstoffen: voedselproductie niet enige zorg. OneWorld, 5 augustus 2014. Weblink. Dutch.

Jongsma H. (2012). Lesbrief "Het is een schandaal", gebruikmakend van krantenartikelen over biobrandstoffen o.a. met een reactie van Auke Pols, May 2012, @Thieme Meulenhoff (opgave: , antwoord: Dutch.

Pols, A.J.K. (2014). In wereld met absolute schaarste gaat groei uiteindelijk altijd ten koste van een ander. Opiniestuk in Het Financieele Dagblad, 18 februari 2014. Dutch.