Oct 25, 2013
Biofuel assessment models should examine more than income
When a community decides to grow biofuels, its total income usually increases. But when it comes to non-income dimensions such as food, land and health, a considerable proportion of that community can be worse off than before. These effects of biofuel deployment need to be included in global integrated assessment models.
This is the conclusion of a study carried out by an international research group that included economists and anthropologists from Germany, Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands.
"The social implications of biofuel production are complex, varied and place-specific," according to lead author Felix Creutzig from Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, Germany."Global models use the word 'livelihood' but this is often just based on aggregate income," he told environmentalresearchweb. "And someone's livelihood is so much more than that. It's about access to food, land and healthcare, for example. But quantifying and modelling biofuel's impact on these dimensions is particularly challenging."
Creutzig and his colleagues focussed on the cultivation of oil palm, jatropha, soy, cassava and sugarcane, and looked at the global and local drivers and effects of biofuel deployment on livelihoods.
"There are several global economic models for the value of biofuel and there are several studies about local populations and the changes in local dynamics, but we wanted to combine the two and find reasonable measurements for the effect of biofuel on livelihoods so that these place-specific measures gain similar attention to aggregate metrics," said Creutzig.
The researchers found that many outcomes of biofuel deployment are not included in integrated assessments. These include positives such as higher land rent for formal land owners and new infrastructure for education, health and production, as well as negatives such as lower income of displaced people, reduced food supply from subsistence farming, lower access to land and ecosystem services, and detrimental health impacts.
"It is clear that there are many distributional effects on livelihoods that global assessment models don't take into account," said Creutzig. "From a human geography perspective, the overall effect of biofuels on livelihoods is – in many case studies – a negative one, but this is not reflected in many models."
The researchers suggest that a first attempt to bring livelihoods into integrated assessment models could include introducing distributional parameters. For example, distinct parameters could represent the percentage of affected households with improved or reduced income, food access, land tenure and health as a result of deployment schemes. "We realize these parameters are highly uncertain, but the current practice of ignoring these effects could lead to misguided policy," said Creutzig.
He also points out that the choice of production model, the underlying and evolving land-tenure regimes, global biofuel markets and equilibrium effects on food markets all affect both aggregate and distributional outcomes, and are possible entry points to improve livelihoods.
The researchers recognize that their study does not tackle a key conundrum: how can livelihoods be assessed globally if each deployment scheme has effects that depend on place-specific factors? But they do believe that there is ample opportunity to soft-couple integrated assessment models with local livelihood analyses and partial equilibrium sector models.
"Economists and anthropologists speak different languages and look at different issues when tackling a subject such as biofuels, but we have shown that it is possible to work together and look at livelihoods from both perspectives," said Creutzig. "The effect of a biofuel deployment on a community often depends on the decision-making process – for example, if the farmers market directly to a refinery, they all benefit, but if the market is dominated by traders, it is them and the refinery that benefit and not the farmers. It is important that, when considering bioenergy deployment, the scheme respects and improves place-specific livelihoods."
- Integrating place-specific livelihood and equity outcomes into global assessments of bioenergy deployment, Felix Creutzig, Esteve Corbera, Simon Bolwig and Carol Hunsberger et al. 2013 Environ. Res. Lett. 8 035047
- ERL Focus on Second Generation Biofuels and Sustainability
About the author
Nadya Anscombe is a contributing editor to environmentalresearchweb.