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Biofuels: Forging Ahead Without a Full Understanding of the End Result

Ridley, C.E., Clark, C.M., LeDuc, S.D., Bierwagen, B.G., Lin, B.B., Mehl, A. and Tobias, D.A. 2012. Biofuels: Network analysis of the literature reveals key environmental and economic unknowns. Environmental Science and Technology 46: 1309-1315.
According to Ridley et al. (2012), "despite rapid growth in biofuel production worldwide, it is uncertain whether decision-makers possess sufficient information to fully evaluate the impacts of the industry and avoid unintended consequences," because, as they put it, "doing so requires rigorous peer-reviewed data and analyses across the entire range of direct and indirect effects." And the U.S. research team surmised that such an effort, or set of efforts, had not been made to this point in time.

In an effort to explore the subject in unprecedented breadth and depth, Ridley et al. therefore analyzed over 1600 peer-reviewed articles published between 2000 and 2009 that addressed 23 biofuels-related topics within four thematic areas: environment and human well-being, economics, technology, and geography. As for their findings, the seven U.S. researchers (six of whom work for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) report discovering that greenhouse gases, fuel production, and feedstock production were "well-represented topics in the literature," while "trade, biodiversity, and human health were not." And they note that "gaps were especially striking across topics in the Southern Hemisphere, where the greatest potential socio-economic benefits, as well as environmental damages, may occur."

Ridley et al. conclude by noting that the research shortcomings they uncovered "could undermine the ability of scientific and economic analyses to adequately evaluate impacts and avoid significant unintended consequences," which may be associated with widespread biofuel production and utilization. Their cautionary conclusion would thus appear to suggest that far too many countries may be rushing far too fast to implement far too expansive programs to produce far too massive quantities of far too many types of biofuels, all of which may be far too dangerous to do at this point in time.

Going fast will get us somewhere; but going slower is more likely to get us to where we really need to be.

Archived 24 July 2012