Environmental Injustice: Socio-Economic impacts of Biofuels

The large push for a shift to biofuels as an alternative energy source is justified largely by the projected  benefits that are anticipated to occur from the decrease of fossil fuel use. Fossil fuels CO2 emissions are immense, while biofuels use sources which take in carbon as it grows and releases it when used for energy, making it a carbon neutral source that does not increase the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases. (2) With any major fuel production shift there are large debates about the costs and benefits of this alternative energy. As climatic effects and impacts are most notable in these debates, the debate over the local social and economic impacts of biofuels is also contentious, and focuses on a few key issues: the ability of biofuels to serve as a stimulus to rural economies, effects on land access and control, and food security. Socioeconomic benefits are likely to be strongly shaped by the mode of production. Therefore, any look at the arguments for and against biofuels must be explicit about the business model for biofuel feedstock cultivation. (1)

Grown for Biofuel: Click image for link


Biofuels as a stimulus for rural economies:

Historically, multi-purpose biofuel feedstocks have been beneficial as modes of economic development for rural communities, for example; palm oil can produce positive socioeconomic benefits to rural communities by creating more jobs, increasing and improving the infrastructure, increasing the land value, and income from smallholder cultivation. (1)

Effects on land ownership and control:

A large concern about the implementation of industrial-scale biofuel production is its effects on local land rights. With increased biofuel production there is decreased access to land and water as well as involuntary land siezures. The national land bureau identified 3500 land disputes which involved palm oil production for biofuels in Indonesia. Most of these conflicts are related to compensation for land and derive from the absence of clear land rights and inequitable benefit sharing arrangements.  Indigenous people with traditional claims to land are particularly disadvantaged by oil palm expansion, due to their traditional land claims formal documentation and recognition of their ownership is limited. There are also cases in Latin America where indigenous people are losing their land to the expansion of soybean production for biofuels affecting the populations and local livelihoods.(1)

Effects on food security:

 There are two main effects the expansion of biofuels can have on food security. First, inudstrial-scale feedstock production can displace customary land uses. Second, the effects of these changes to land use can effect food prices making food accessibility more difficult for the poor. The poor spend disproportionately high percentages of income on food consumption making them much more susceptible to the effects of increased food prices. In regards to the use of marginal lands for biofuel production, recent studies have shown that these lands often support the vulnerable citizens of a community in crucial livelihood functions such as for subsistence or to sustain them in times of need.  Therefore it is evident that commercial biofuel production can have large effects on local livelihoods, household food security, and the economic, social, and cultural aspects of land use. (1)


There are benefits and drawbacks to the increased implementation of biofuel production for the environment and society. When it comes to the social and economic debate the question is; do the benefits from increased formal employment, social infrastructure, and economic spillovers that accompany commercial biofuel production offset the losses and issues caused to socio-economic dimensions by this expansion?

To learn more about this topic visit http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol16/iss3/art24/


German, L., G. C. Schoneveld, and P. Pacheco 2011. The social and environmental impacts of biofuel feedstock cultivation: evidence from multi-site research in the forest frontier. Ecology and Society 16(3): 24.
http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-04309-160324 (1)


“Bioenergy (Biofuels and Biomass).” Bioenergy (Biofuels and Biomass). Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI), 2014. Web. 5 May 2015. (2)



(Composed by Matthew Schmitt, Edited by Tien Tran)

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By Eli Karp, Robert King, Tien Tran, and Matthew Schmitt