Biofuels and (ir)responsible innovation: tensions between policy, practice and sustainable development

April 13, 2015 - April 14, 2015
Eindhoven University of Technology


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Background: For as long as biofuels have prominently appeared in EU policy, they have been a contested energy source. Crops such as jatropha have been hailed as ‘wonder crop’, only to experience an ‘extraordinary collapse’ within a decade. From the food vs. fuel discussion to indirect land use change, wicked problems have plagued biofuel developments and continue to provoke disagreement between societal actors. The impacts of biofuels’ tumultuous history have been felt particularly in the Global South, where land grabbing and opportunistic behaviour of investors have caused great social and ecological problems.

Proponents of biofuels claim that this is all the more reason to continue with investments and innovation: new sources of biofuels, such as plant residues and algae, will eventually solve all our problems. Given the great uncertainties and past harms, however, these claims should not be accepted lightly, nor should we assume that all encountered problems are technology-specific. Rather, we should realise that biofuels as a case study raise fundamental questions with regard to policy and governance, responsible innovation and sustainable development.

This conference is devoted to addressing these fundamental questions from a multidisciplinary perspective. As such, we welcome contributions from (but not limited to) the following disciplines: development studies; economics; environmental studies; ethics; policy studies; political ecology; science and technology studies and sociology. Contributions are invited to tie together the following themes:

Biofuels and biofuel policy

Much research in this area has been on next-generation biofuels and sustainability criteria, but to what extent are these sufficient to solve today’s problems? What exactly have we learnt from our experiences with first-generation biofuels? What actors, ideas and arguments shape biofuel developments? Is the current neoliberalist division of labour between governments and markets adequate to achieve a sustainable transport energy system? Are there reasons for abandoning biofuels altogether, and if so, what would be better ways to achieve energy security, mitigate climate change and contribute to rural development?

Responsible innovation

Past problems in biofuel innovations suggest that it is time to explore the limits of the responsible innovation framework. Can all innovations be made responsible, and if not, under what conditions and for what purposes should we stop or prevent innovations? How do we balance the need for flexibility with demands for investor security and stable, long-term policy? Do responsible innovation frameworks adequately take cultural and situational factors into account? Schumpeter has characterised innovation as ‘creative destruction’: what exactly has been destroyed in biofuel innovations, who has paid the cost, who has benefited, and has it been worth it? How can we stimulate societal stakeholders to share information on failed projects to improve learning and prevent reoccurrence?


Sustainable development

Biofuel cultivation has caused social and environmental harms more often than not, particularly in the Global South. Can biofuel cultivation contribute to local sustainable development, and if so, how? Current policy and practices tend to focus on sustainability certification: is this necessary and sufficient for achieving sustainable biofuel development, or are there better alternatives? Are there social entrepreneurship models that combine market efficiency with strong ethical ideals and alleviation of extreme poverty? Are just stakeholder involvement processes possible in a global trade that is characterised by vast distances and power differences?


Abstract submission: we welcome abstracts of no more than 500 words (excl. references) that connect at least two of the conference’s themes: ‘biofuels and biofuel policy’, ‘responsible innovation’ and ‘sustainable development’ (specific questions are posed as examples only). Deadline is 1 February 2015; notification of acceptance will be sent out before 1 March 2015. Authors of accepted abstracts are expected to send us (first drafts of) their papers no later than 1 April 2015 so that we can circulate them among the conference attendees.

Abstracts and papers can be send to the organisation at [email protected]. As the conference is aimed at an interdisciplinary audience, please make sure that your abstract and presentation are accessible to non-specialists.

Participation: participation in the conference is free of cost, but registration is required. You can register by sending an email to the organisation at [email protected]. Please register no later than March 15, 2015.

Travel grants: a limited amount of travel grants is available for researchers from developing countries and for non-tenured junior researchers, whose abstracts have been accepted for a presentation. If you would like to be considered for a grant, please contact the organisation at [email protected].

Website: updates will be posted to the conference website at:

Organisation: Evelien de Hoop, MPhil; dr. Auke Pols; dr. Henny Romijn (Eindhoven University of Technology).

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