Sustainable Bioenergy: Evolving Stakeholder Interests

by Christina Whalen

The diversity of stakeholders’ interest and values complicates the decision-making process involved in the future of sustainable bioenergy production. Johnson et al. explores the different stakeholder perspectives and then examines how this diversity affects research on the subject. Biofuel production has been brought to the public’s attention because of the need to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, increase energy security, support farm production, and improve economic growth in rural areas. The recent increase in biofuel consumption has resulted in stakeholders questioning environmental, economic, and social benefits of using agriculture to produce ethanol and biodiesel. As a result, policy makers have passed legislation and modified regulations about renewable fuel production in order to promote the use of alternative biomass feedstocks. The general research community is looking for ways to convert this feedstock to a usable fuel source in vehicles. The expansion of biofuel production coincides with the addition of more and diverse stakeholder groups that will be involved or affected by various parts of the biofuel supply chain. These groups require different information to make decisions and have conflicting perspectives about sustainable bioenergy. Johnson et al. investigate the implications of stakeholder diversity for bioenergy research and inform research communities the importance of social science issues in relation to their work.

Sustainable bioenergy production is defined as the use of biomass as an energy resource that contributes to climate change mitigation, energy security, and economic development goals, results in minimal environmental and social impacts, and attains economic self-sufficiency. Differentiating stakeholder interests results from varying values and objectives and leads to fragmented decision-making. Although the United States Renewable Fuel Standard revisions are making progress toward mitigating ineffective decision-making, research alone will not resolve existing issues. Increasing use of biomass as energy feedstock has led researchers and environmental community members to investigate the environmental, social, and economic impacts of using bioenergy in a way that would mitigate our petroleum consumption. The concerns of these groups include the net energy balance of biofuel production, climate benefits, ecosystem service impacts, global impacts on international land use, agricultural markets, and food security. These concerns relate to the current limited range of biomass feedstock and the hope of developing “second generation” cellulosic feedstock that includes more than corn grain and soy. However, the technology developments for this endeavor are uncertain.

Stakeholder diversity results from the complexity of bioenergy production: it’s an industry that is not vertically integrated. The supply chain intersects with economic, technical, and regulatory systems. Stakeholder diversity also stems from the uncertainty of bioenergy production because many feedstocks lack successful markets, conversion technology is not perfected or widely available, and funding is limited. Stakeholders are defined as groups that participate in or are affected by public and private decision-making with regard to bioenergy production. Stakeholders are either directly involved with the bioenergy supply chain, affected by bioenergy production indirectly, responsible for governance of the supply chain through developing policies and regulations, or are interested in advancing the development of the bioenergy industry.

Researchers should be aware of how differing stakeholder groups will affect the questions they ask and the information they provide. Being aware of the differences will lead to sustainable research outcomes. A prominent issue is that as new stakeholders arise, so do new issues and these new issues attract new stakeholders and continue the complex cycle resulting in intricate research dilemmas. Researchers can affect this issue domain by trying to reconcile doubts, adding a level of understanding to complex issues, and increasing or decreasing the relevance of specific subjects. For example, there is no simple answer to whether biomass as an energy resource will be beneficial because it relies on stakeholder perspective and values. Thus, researchers need to begin their work by studying and understanding the full range of stakeholder values.

The success of sustainable bioenergy production depends on scientific and technical information that align with stakeholder values and interests. One of the barriers to this production is the lack of processes to negotiate effectively among competing stakeholder groups. In order to make the bioenergy successful, stakeholders need to engage with one another or else they risk myopic decision-making. For example, conflicting values of international land use impede the development of the bioenergy industry due to the uncertainty about which resources should be used as feedstocks for renewable fuels. Some argue that policy and regulation could alleviate these types of conflicts, but the continuously changing circumstances prevent these regulations from being flexible and effective. Stakeholder diversity also affects the type of information that researchers provide. Three characteristics that increase research influence are saliency, credibility, and legitimacy. Stakeholders evaluate information against these characteristics, but will weigh each characteristic differently. Thus researchers need to frame their work in order to make it appealing to the particular groups they are targeting. Because one information source cannot maximize all three characteristics simultaneously, a large range of information resources is needed.

Johnson et al. discuss various recommendations for the research community. The first recommendation is concerned with the value of participatory research—stakeholders need to be active participants in research activities because they can improve research design, enhance decision support, and increase vital attributes of research output. However, participatory research does not imply favoritism of a specific stakeholder group. The second recommendation suggests that the bioenergy research community should focus on improving the interactions among stakeholders. Lastly, the authors recommend rigorous and continuous bioenergy stakeholder analysis in order to understand changing values, interests, and decision-making processes.

Johnson, T., Bielicki, J., Dodder, R., Hilliard, M., Kaplan, O., Miller, A. 2013. Advancing sustainable bioenergy: evolving stakeholder interests and the relevance of research. Environmental Management, 51: 339-353. Full paper:

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