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

How Good Politics Results in Bad Policy: The Case of Biofuel Mandates

| Winter 2010-11

The biofuels industry has become big policy, big business, and increasingly controversial.  While countries like the United States and Brazil use biofuels to support farmers, increase energy security (reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil), improve the environment, and increase economic independence by reducing the need for foreign oil, environmentalists challenge the assertion that biofuels, particularly corn ethanol, offer a meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

In his new discussion paper, Belfer Center Board Member Robert Lawrence makes the case that the growing list of concerns about the impact of biofuel targets and mandates are the predictable result of a failure to follow the basic principles of good policy-making.

Lawrence says there are inconsistencies between what biofuel supporters say and what they really want from government policies, and he argues that the current U.S. biofuels mandates do not represent the most efficient or precise instrument to meet any of the policy's stated goals.

Although current biofuel mandates are not good policy, they certainly represent an issue that has achieved political success. In the United States, both Republicans and Democrats support biofuels, especially in farm states.

A great source of political strength, Lawrence writes, is that biofuels can be justified in so many ways, which has been tremendously useful in building support for biofuels. Many groups have become interested in biofuels because production and use of these fuels impacts three major policy areas-energy policy, environmental policy, and agricultural policy.

While the resulting breadth of support for biofuels has been tremendously useful for building political support for biofuel use, it is detrimental to good policy.  Lawrence's dilemma is this: The principles of good policymaking require precision and clarity of purpose, but the political realities of forming coalitions often benefit from ambiguity, hiding costs, accepting second-best justifications, and packaging policies together to further broaden support.

Biofuels are not a policy or an end in itself, but an instrument, Lawrence writes.  The first step is to agree on goals before deciding if a particular technology is the most efficient way to meet the policy goal. Focusing on the desired goal or target, he says, will increase the chances that policies will be rational and efficient.

See full text at: http://belfercenter.org/BioFuelMandates/

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Swanson, Amanda. How Good Politics Results in Bad Policy: The Case of Biofuel Mandates.” Belfer Center Newsletter (Winter 2010-11).