TranSTEP and biofuels in the UK

By Barbara Ribeiro, Robert Smith and Kate Millar, Centre for Applied Bioethics, University of Nottingham (November 2014)

The development and use of biofuels entails complex policy-relevant problems, hence this is an interesting case for the EST-Frame project work. The findings from this case study, which focused on the development of advanced biofuels in the United Kingdom, indicate that new integrative approaches are needed to support informed policy-making in this area of technological development. In particular, there is evidence that:

  • The social and environmental dimensions of biofuel developments should not be regarded separately,
  • Much uncertainty remains with regards to their impacts and to the economic feasibility of some emerging biofuel technologies, and
  • There are important challenges for their governance due to the decentralisation of production chains across the globe.

The development of advanced biofuels in the UK

In the UK, prior to 2000, data from a range of assessments generally supported the position that domestic development of biofuel production and the use of fuels within transport were not viable. However, this position was re-evaluated at the turn of the century as the European Commission began to set mandatory targets for fuel blending as a means to meet climate change reduction targets. Policies were particularly focused on the transport sector, which was forecast to grow, and as such this made reduction difficult from efficiency savings alone.

Whilst policy makers were setting targets for the blending of biofuels with conventional petrochemicals, a controversy emerged.[1] Initially this mirrored long-aired concerns about the impact of biofuel production on the food security of vulnerable people. Biofuel production was criticised for its displacement of crops from the food to the fuel chain, contributing to rising food prices. Controversy peaked in 2007 and achieved some public salience, however more recently the debate has shifted focused with other dimensions also being raised which are intertwined with a changing policy narrative in Europe. Policy-relevant concerns now prioritise environmental impacts, with a particular focus on the greenhouse gas balances, alongside the direct and indirect impacts on land use patterns of biofuels production. Of course, these are neither the only impacts of biofuels, nor the sole focuses of biofuel assessments, as the empirical work within EST-Frame has shown.

The production of biofuels based on new technologies focuses on enabling the use of alternative raw materials and conversion processes. In theory, these methods would both open up new sources of feedstock (e.g. algae and the ‘woody’ inedible parts of crops) for production as well as sidestepping issues related to the biofuels controversy, such as the competition with food crops for land use all with more favourable GHG emissions. However, these methods are emerging in fluid policy and assessment environments and that may in the future prioritise different sets of issues, different production approaches or end products.

The assessment landscape for biofuels

In the biofuels context, the assessment and decision making landscape is well populated. The initial literature review conducted in the EST-Frame project identified over 500 documents with some form of evaluatory component. In addition to this, at least three UK government departments have some form of responsibility for an aspect of biofuel production, and these operate within a higher-level European Commission policy framework. This high density and diversity of voices, as well as the fact that biofuel production and use is highly spatially and temporally dispersed, means that the assessment and regulatory landscape could be described as complicated and messy.  In short, the profile of assessment demonstrates that many actors have been producing a large volume of assessments on a wider range of topics with many different embedded priorities and assumptions.

In terms of the characteristics of the published assessments of biofuels, the majority are focused on established technologies, also known as “first-generation” biofuels. These assessments reflect a great diversity of evaluative approaches and types of supply chains analysed. They have also prioritised the environmental and economic dimensions of first-generation biofuels, with little attention given to social impacts. In addition it can be difficult to compare assessments because of a lack of transparency in assumptions, sources of data and methodological detail.

The empirical research work (through two workshops) conducted with assessment practitioners and specialists working with biofuels, evaluated the state-of-the-art of biofuels assessments and examined policy relevant problems in relation to advanced biofuels (within a UK context). These workshops were also conducted to map out emerging issues and identify research gaps. With regards to the development of advanced biofuels in the UK (specifically with a focus on cellulosic ethanol) the main findings of the workshops indicated that the different dimensions that characterize issues related to the biofuel type and policy decisions that relate to the use of land and feedstock. In addition, the effects of political uncertainty, challenges involving biofuel impacts and current economic barriers for the deployment of cellulosic ethanol technologies. Significantly, participants highlighted how different framings and narratives affect argumentation and points of view. A diversity of disciplinary backgrounds was seen as an asset, it was also acknowledged that alternative assessment approaches are needed to accommodate and integrate different perspectives that emerge from a policy dialogue regarding advance biofuels.

The case-based work highlighted that for emerging technologies (i.e. advanced biofuels) there is very limited appraisal using anticipatory and holistic approaches, which was one of the limitations of analyses produced so far for the first generation technologies. This need has been acknowledged by academia and government departments in the United Kingdom. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), for example, has commissioned “a collaborative multi-phase UK research programme which aims to fill significant gaps in knowledge about the sustainability of different mixes of energy supply and demand options needed to deliver 2050 greenhouse gas UK emissions targets”.[2]

The TranSTEP approach and biofuels

Findings from the project work examining the opportunities and challenges of advanced biofuels in the UK indicate that TranSTEP could be a useful approach to the assessment of advanced biofuels. Specifically, the analysis in the EST-Frame project has highlighted that for advanced biofuels in the UK, there are some areas of concern that could be explored within the TranSTEP process. These are:

  • Scientific uncertainty over crucial sustainability issues of biofuels and uncertainty over long-term performance and cost of advanced biofuels, which complicates evidence-based policy making.
  • Advanced biofuels, such as cellulosic ethanol, need to be considered against different alternatives and competing uses of biomass need to be further explored.
  • Methodological challenges involved in the assessment of the impacts of first-generation ethanol seem to remain valid for the case of cellulosic ethanol. A transdisciplinary system-wide approach is needed.

The TranSTEP approach could help by structuring a dialogue that brings together different assessment perspectives held on biofuel-related controversies (as complex problems) as well as policy makers. First, it could help to integrate different dimensions of a complex problem through ‘collaborative problem framing’. Then as part of the assessment process, it could help through the integration of findings from pre-existing assessments that are focused on different aspects of biofuels. Since transparency regarding the assumptions and the limitation of assessment boundaries are primary concerns within the emerging technology assessment debates, TranSTEP could also contribute by improving the robustness of analyses and informing decision-making in a more legitimate way.

For further information on the biofuels case please either:

Contact: Dr Kate Millar, Centre for Applied Bioethics, University of Nottingham, UK (


[1] Mol, A. P. J. (2007). Boudless biofuels? Between environmental sustainability and vulnerability. Sociologia Ruralis, 47(4), 297–315. Boucher, P. (2013). Things, names, judgments and the LRS lens: A critical realist analysis of the biofuel controversy in the UK. Science Communication. Retrieved from