The Sussex Energy Group

Sustainability and innovation in liquid transport biofuels

Sharp oil price rises since the early 2000s have prompted reconsideration of liquid transport biofuel alternatives. Biofuels are back on many policy agendas. Biofuels can be produced from a variety of sugar, starch or oil crops. This includes corn, sugarcane and cereals, rapeseed, soy, sunflower, oil palm or castor bean. Advocates portray these as a 'green' alternative to fossil-based fuels, capable of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, improving energy security and alleviating the problems faced by the agricultural community. However, critics associate the current 'first generation' of biofuels with increasing food prices, aggravating problems of unequal land ownership in developing countries, causing biodiversity loss, and bringing few if any carbon reduction benefits. The policy enthusiasm of recent years has become more cautious.
A growing body of opinion argues that for biofuels to be sustainable on any significant scale technological breakthroughs will be necessary. There is an expectation that innovation will allow biofuels to be produced from non-food material such as ligno-cellulose or algae. Yet, it is far from evident that these 'next generation' biofuels will automatically enhance sustainability. Use of biomass for heat or electricity generation could bring higher and cheaper emission reductions, more effective harvesting of forest and crop residues might harm ecosystems and biodiversity, and the high skill and capacity requirements may make new technologies poorly adapted to the needs of poor communities in the global south. Much depends upon the form of the social, economic, political and institutional developments accompanying any development of next generation liquid biofuels.

Current research in the Sussex Energy Group seeks to shed light on these questions by focusing on two interrelated aspects of biofuel policies:

-    the social construction of sustainability, as manifested in areas such as public, academic and policy debate and sustainability appraisals; and
-    the innovation pathways and policies aimed to foster transition towards next generation biofuels.

Previous research and outputs:

Lehtonen, Markku. 'Social sustainability of the Brazilian bioethanol: power relations in a centre-periphery perspective.' Article in the journal 'Biomass and Bioenergy'. October 2009.

Lehtonen, Markku. Towards Biofuel Sustainability. Platts Energy Economist, Issue 335. September 2009

An Exclusive Engine of Growth: The Development Model of Brazilian Sugarcane. A document prepared for Ethical Sugar by Dr Ben Richardson, with significant contributions from Markku Lehtonen (Sussex Energy Group) and Siobhán McGrath. January 2009.

Lehtonen, Markku.  Look at Brazil bioethanol regionally. Comment to an article "Sugar cane ethanol: Brazil's biofuel success". SciDev.Net, 5 January 2008.

SEG response to the Department for Transport Consultation on the Draft Renewable Transport Fuel Obligations (Amendment) Order 2009, 15 December 2008

SEG Policy Briefing Current biofuels: bridge or obstacle to sustainable next generation technologies? November 2008

What lies behind the natural knowledge economy? STEPS Centre blog by Adrian Smith July 2008

SEG contributed written and oral evidence to the peer review of the Renewable Fuels Agency's review on the indirect land use impacts of biofuels, the so-called Gallagher review. July 2008

SEG comments to the draft review report of the Gallagher review from 19 June 2008.

SEG response to the EC Energy and Transport Directorate consultation 'Biofuel issues in the new legislation on the promotion of renewable energy', 31 May 2007

Contacts: Dr Markku Lehtonen / Dr Adrian Smith