Public Policy and the Governance of Biofuel Systems

Abstract: Popular Abstract in English Nowadays road, air and sea transport activities around the world are almost completely dependent on finite and polluting oil fuels. Biofuels are fuels produced from biomass which can be used to substitute gasoline and diesel in cars, busses and (soon) planes. Where oil was created millions of years ago and is soon reaching its limit, biofuels are renewable fuels which can be produced by farmers in every region of the world. This constitutes a major improvement in energy security issues through the reduction of the need to import oil and can hold a great potential for economic and rural development especially in poor countries. However, as society did with oil it is now realizing that biofuels are not perfect. Attractive benefits such as reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, energy security and agricultural development do not come automatically. Even worse, if mismanaged, biofuels can create a whole new range of problems; increased emissions of greenhouse gasses, biodiversity losses and competition with food production. With such promising potential and so great risks biofuels have been quite naturally the source of intense debate. At the head of the debate is how to develop biofuels in a sustainable way. In this thesis I studied the role of governments in the process of directing the development of biofuels: governing biofuels. So far governments around the world have played a central role in the rapid development of biofuels by granting tax reductions, production subsidies and even forcing oil companies to sell biofuels. As a result the world consumes increasing quantities of biofuels. Even if their share is still small (around 3% of total consumption of transport fuels), their impact on the environment and society could prove to be significant. I have focused my studies on governments, understood as institutions which include organisations, such as agencies and ministries, and public policies with the intention of understanding whether governments successfully employ and create policies which adequately balance between risks and benefits of biofuels. A basic assumption in my studies is that governments cannot act alone in this process of governing, but need to interact and sometimes cooperate with the rest of society, for example, with farmers, car producers, consumers and so on. This way of governing is referred in political science as governance. I studied a number of cases in rich and developing countries to discover that governments have little experience with this type of complex problems. Their capacity to govern and ensure that biofuels are positively contributing to social and environmental objectives is weak. Major problems are connected with the difficulties of having truly sustainable biofuels: biofuel producers in developing and developed countries and environmental NGOs do not agree on what sustainable biofuels are, consumers do not know, and the scientific knowledge is inconclusive. This situation is partly due to the effects of biofuels being in many ways difficult to observe and quantify. Clearly some people are better off thanks to biofuels, while others might lose from their expansion. But there is no agreement on the overall impact of biofuels on the environment and society. In this situation I argue that governments should change strategy to move towards more sustainable paths. After 5 years of intense research I see two (probably complementary) strategies to move in that direction. On the one hand, they should improve the capacity to govern by addressing conflicts among actors, especially at international level. On the other hand, they need to adjust expectations and ambitions so that biofuels are approached with more realistic goals. The key assumption here is that ambitions and capacity to govern should grow together. The results of this study are useful not only for biofuels! Every product we consume has many impacts on the environment and society we live in. Today the conscious consumer asks what these impacts are and what to do to limit them. The work carried out on improving the capacity to govern biofuels will be useful in the future. We simply need to realize that biofuels are not so unique and that even if we develop them sustainably society will still have problems with climate change, hunger and biodiversity. The lessons learnt with biofuels will reveal themselves to be very useful when we decide to apply the same way of thinking to other products like oil, meat, electronics, etc. My hope is for this thesis to contribute to that.

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