Overline: Governance
Headline: Bioenergy: An Integrated Approach to a Controversial Technology

Food and water crises across the globe are a constant reminder of the interconnectedness of different risks. Against this background, the last ten years have seen growing interest in the “resource nexus”, a term used to describe the interactions between different forms of natural resource use. Take bioenergy, for example: its use is increasing, despite the fact that the cultivation of biomass competes with food production and the conservation of natural ecosystems. A recent study suggests that the concept of ‘reflexive governance’ can support the development of more integrated biofuels policies by encouraging a shift from individual interests to an integrative approach.

Brazil produces not only sugar but also biofuel from sugar cane.
Brazil produces not only sugar but also biofuel from sugar cane. Shutterstock/Pla2na

In her article in the journal Energy Research and Social Science, Inaiê Santos, who spent a year at the IASS as an International Climate Protection Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, compares the implementation of biofuels policies in Brazil and Germany. Both countries actively encouraged the expansion of biofuels. Brazil is the world’s second largest producer of biofuels, while Germany dominates the field in Europe. But the biofuels policies pursued by the two countries have diverged in recent years. “While land use and the conflict with food production are the main issues in the German debate, a ‘win-win’ narrative prevails in Brazil with a focus on energy security, economic development, and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions,” explains Santos.

Brazil under Bolsonaro: unchecked bioenergy expansion regardless of ecological consequences

Santos describes how in both countries decision-making on bioenergy has been driven by narrow interests. Thus the Brazilian Parliament prioritised economic considerations and ignored warnings of the risk of water scarcity from the National Water Agency. In November 2019, President Bolsonaro abolished a decree that had been in force since 2009, which prevented the cultivation of sugarcane in the Amazon Region and the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland area. The environmental effects of these policies did not enter the equation.

Germany: support now limited to “advanced biofuels”

With the support of the EU, Germany began to produce biofuels in the early 1990s with the principaim of opening up new markets for agricultural surpluses. This policy was increasingly criticised from 2005 on. Initially, the major bone of contention was tax exemptions for biofuels, but environmental concerns later came to the fore.
The Climate Action Plan 2030 recently adopted by the German government only allows the promotion of “advanced biofuels” (e.g. cellulose). According to Santos, in the debate on the pros and cons of biofuels, the competition for land resources took centre stage while the impact of the fertilisers used to cultivate energy crops on groundwater was neglected.

Better policies through “reflexive governance”

Santos shows how the concept of reflexive governance could help us make better policy decisions in future. Reflexive governance is not just about grappling with the effects and side effects of solutions but also about breaking out of conventional problem-solving routines. “It involves reflection on the ability of current decision-making processes to cope with complexity and uncertainty, which characterize the sheer scale of interdependencies between uses of natural resources globally. More importantly, it invites us to revisit assumptions about cause-effect relationships and even to reconsider the underlying values of current norms and institutions”, explains Santos. For that to work, actors from different levels of government with different backgrounds need to become involved in existing institutions and processes. When integrated into decision-making, their alternative perspectives can help to develop better solutions.

  • Santos, I. (2020): Confronting governance challenges of the resource nexus through reflexivity: A cross-case comparison of biofuels policies in Germany and Brazil. - Energy Research and Social Science, 65, 101464.
    DOI: http://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2020.101464