Thursday, August 5, 2010 - 11:10 AM

OOS 38-10: The potential and pitfalls of biofuels: how knowledge gaps may impair a comprehensive assessment

Caroline E. Ridley1, Chris M. Clark1, Britta Bierwagen2, Alice Chen3, Stephen D. LeDuc2, Brenda B. Lin1, Adrea Mehl4, Richard A. Simmons 5, and David A. Tobias6. (1) US EPA, National Center for Environmental Assessment, (2) US EPA, (3) AAAS, US EPA, Sustainability Program, (4) US EPA, Office of the Science Advisor, (5) AAAS, US Department of State, Bureau for Economic, Energy and Business Affairs, (6) AAAS, US EPA, Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics


Biofuels represent a renewable source of energy with the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as compared to petroleum-based liquid fuels. From this perspective, their promise as an environmental asset was widely heralded, but as research accumulates, pitfalls are also starting to emerge. Given that biofuels could have widespread and long-term positive and/or negative impacts not only with respect to air quality, but other environmental, human health, and socioeconomic factors, as well, we surveyed the biofuels literature between 2000 and 2009 to describe trends in the pace, the geographic distribution, and the thematic areas of publication. In addition, because integration of disciplines will truly afford the ability to maximize the promise and mitigate the pitfalls of biofuels by contextualizing impacts and allowing broad cost-benefit comparisons, we performed a network analysis to examine the extent of interdisciplinary study.


We find that since the beginning of the decade, the number of biofuels studies has increased exponentially, with over half being published in 2008 and 2009 alone. While research effort is high for those countries with large and/or increasing energy demands, including the US, China and India, far fewer studies examine the potential positive or negative impacts of biofuels on developing nations and their energy and food security. We also find that the distribution among studies relating to different aspects of human well-being and the environment, encompassing such important considerations as health, air quality, water resources and biodiversity, is variable, and that limited association between these and both economic and technological considerations is likely hindering our ability to fully understand the role that biofuels may play in our global society. Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the authors and not necessarily those of US EPA.