Recent research and analysis on biofuels has gone through many phases, most recently focusing on the sustainability of their production and use. There is strong evidence to suggest that while biofuel landscapes can provide a number of ecosystem services (e.g. fuel, climate regulation), the production and use of biofuels sometimes compromises other ecosystem services provided by the landscape, that are of paramount importance for human well-being – for example food, grazing, fresh water.

A field of rape, a common biofuel feedstock

A field of rape, a common biofuel feedstock. Photo: Mathias Liebing/Flickr

However, the myriad issues, interests and stakeholders associated with biofuels have made it very difficult to develop a multi-disciplinary synthesis of the existing evidence on trade-offs between biofuels and sustainability, particularly when it comes to localised impacts of biofuel feedstock production.

The ecosystems services approach offers a new lens on sustainability, one that facilitates deeper analysis of issues at the landscape level and provides complementary perspectives to lifecycle studies, supply/demand models and other approaches. This special issue is a first step towards providing such a multi-disciplinary synthesis, with a focus on liquid biofuels.

The special issue makes case for the ecosystem services approach as a powerful means to promote greater biofuel sustainability, given its system-based approach, ability to identify trade-offs across temporal and spatial scales, and growing acceptability among academics and stakeholders.

However there remain a series of important gaps at the interface of biofuels and ecosystem services that need to be bridged. The 14 papers included in the special issue provide novel and original contributions that help to fill some of these research gaps by employing concepts, methods and tools from the ecosystem services literature to highlight how it is possible to use this lens to understand better issues related to biofuel sustainability and contribute to a better evidence base for policy and practice.

The special issue includes three articles co-authored by Francis X. Johnson:

Using an Ecosystem Services perspective to assess biofuel sustainability“, the introductory editorial.

Multi-dimensional poverty effects around operational biofuel projects in Malawi, Mozambique and Swaziland

Mechanisms and indicators for assessing the impact of biofuel feedstock production on ecosystem services”

See a full table of contents for the special issue.