Published online by Cambridge University Press: 21 September 2018
The research on the regulation of the sustainability of biofuels has a pivotal societal relevance with a view on a prevalent pursuit for low-emission and sustainable energies. The Paris Agreement adopted at the UNFCCC COP21 in December 2015 galvanized the long-term goal of achieving balance between anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions in the second half of this century. Declaration of this long-term goal is acclaimed as sending a signal for an irreversible trend of replacing fossil fuels with low-emission and sustainable energies. Such a momentum has also culminated in the series of renewable energy initiatives or alliances launched under auspices of the Lima-Paris Action Agenda (LPAA). In face of the rush towards a fossil-free economy and society, it is high time we reflect upon what ‘clean’ and ‘sustainable’ energy should be promoted and to what extent law and policy on climate and energy may ensure environmental and socio-economic sustainability in the production and consumption of energy. In this sense, biofuels provide a valuable case study.
Biofuels have been promoted by governments for decades as an affordable substitute for fossil fuels, in an attempt to reduce dependence on oil import, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while boosting rural economy; more recently, reducing GHG emissions in the transport sector has become the key objective. With increasing consumption and production of biofuels, they are increasingly subject to debates over the potential negative impacts on environmental and socio-economic sustainability. From an environmental perspective, the criticism concentrates on the ecological and climate change impacts during the process of producing biofuels, particularly with regard to the effects of land use changes. Apart from environmental concerns, biofuels are also criticised in view of negative social impact, since the feedstocks used for producing biofuels are mostly food sources and their diverted use for biofuel production may give rise to problems in food availability, land grabbing, and land use rights of local and indigenous communities. From an economic perspective, biofuels were assumed to create new economic opportunities for people in rural areas by increasing the demand for and prices of agricultural products, but the economic viability and benefits may have been overestimated, and many studies demonstrate resource efficiency problems with regard to certain types of biofuels when the input of energy and resources for producing biofuels is considered. Furthermore, the environmental, social, and economic facets can be intertwined – the environmental impacts might incur socioeconomic problems and vice versa.