- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Report Urges Governments to Explore Benefits, Risks of Biolfuels

Winter 2008-09

Despite pressure from biofuel critics, governments should avoid simplistic and precipitous changes in course on biofuels such as rollback or moratoria on existing biofuels mandates or incentives, according to a recent report from the Sustainability Science Program of Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) in collaboration with Italy’s Ministry for the Environment, Land and Sea, and Venice International University.

Instead, “Biofuels and Sustainable Development” urges governments to initiate an orderly, innovation-enhancing transition toward incentives that target multi-dimensional goals for biofuels development. These goals should include poverty alleviation, reducing net greenhouse gas emissions, increasing use of non-food feedstock, attaining sustainable biofuel production targets, and conserving biodiversity.

Biofuels have the potential to promote economic development, climate protection and other environmental goals, energy security, and returns to private investors, according to the report. However, if not implemented with care, biofuel production can put upward pressure on food prices, increase greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, exacerbate degradation of land, forests, water sources, and ecosystems, and jeopardize the livelihood security of individuals immediately dependent on the natural resource base.                   

“As the world confronts the prospects that by 2020 the supply of oil will be unable to meet demand, biofuels will take on increasing importance,” said Henry Lee, director of the Belfer Center’s Environment and Natural Resources Program and co-author of the report along with Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science William Clark and Charan Devereaux, senior researcher with the HKS and Harvard Law School’s Trade and Negotiations Program.

“Any single policy to address every one of these challenges simultaneously is certain to be ineffective,” Lee said. “To address these concerns, good biofuel policy should expect to rely on four to five instruments. If the potential of biofuels is to be realized, governments must be clear about goals and constraints and the specific interventions to address each of them.”

Guiding biofuel development to realize its multiple potential benefits while guarding against its multiple risks requires the application of a similarly diverse set of tailored policy interventions, together with integrated efforts to assure that those interventions work synergistically rather than at cross-purposes.

The report stems from a two-day workshop in May hosted by the Kennedy School in cooperation with its Italian partners. Twenty-five of the world's top experts on biofuels, economic development, and ecology explored the actions needed to foster the sustainable development of biofuels investments while simultaneously mitigating the impacts on food prices and the environment.

The report is available here.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Belfer Center Communications Office. Report Urges Governments to Explore Benefits, Risks of Biolfuels.” Belfer Center Newsletter (Winter 2008-09).