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UK biofuel policy: envisaging sustainable biofuels, shaping institutions and futures

Levidow, L   Papaioannou, T

Environment and Planning A   46 (2) 280–298

DOI: 10.1068/a45711

February 2014

Technoscientific innovation has played a central role in UK biofuel policy. When the government was proposing mandatory targets in 2007–08, public controversy over ‘unsustainable biofuels’ was channelled into prospects for future biofuels to avoid environmental harm and land-use conflicts. This vision serves as an imaginary — a feasible, desirable future. Societal benefits have been envisaged according to specific models of economic competitiveness, valuable knowledge, and environmental sustainability—together comprising a prevalent imaginary of future ‘sustainable biofuels’. This has informed institutional change along two lines. First, targets are envisaged as a temporary transition until future ‘advanced biofuels’ make liquid fuel more sustainable. Second, UK research institutes realign their priorities towards seeking investment from foreign counterparts and global energy companies, in the name of making UK science and industry more competitive. Together these measures have been justified as necessary for a transition to advanced biofuels which would better contribute to a low-carbon economy. Although this imaginary may eventually be transformed into reality, initially realised has been institutional change that reinforces infrastructural dependence on liquid fuel for the internal combustion engine. As an imaginary, then, ‘sustainable biofuels’ can help explain how a policy agenda promotes one future, while marginalising alternatives.