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Biofuels: Network Analysis of the Literature Reveals Key Environmental and Economic Unknowns

Environmental Science & Technology
American Chemical Society
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1021/es2023253
  • Critical Review
  • Biology
  • Ecology
  • Economics
  • Geography


Despite rapid growth in biofuel production worldwide, it is uncertain whether decision-makers possess sufficient information to fully evaluate the impacts of the industry and avoid unintended consequences. Doing so requires rigorous peer-reviewed data and analyses across the entire range of direct and indirect effects. To assess the coverage of scientific research, we analyzed over 1600 peer-reviewed articles published between 2000 and 2009 that addressed 23 biofuels-related topics within four thematic areas: environment and human well-being, economics, technology, and geography. Greenhouse gases, fuel production, and feedstock production were well-represented in the literature, while trade, biodiversity, and human health were not. Gaps were especially striking across topics in the Southern Hemisphere, where the greatest potential socio-economic benefits, as well as environmental damages, may co-occur. There was strong asymmetry in the connectedness of research topics; greenhouse gases articles were twice as often connected to other topics as biodiversity articles. This could undermine the ability of scientific and economic analyses to adequately evaluate impacts and avoid significant unintended consequences. At the least, our review suggests caution in this developing industry and the need to pursue more interdisciplinary research to assess complex trade-offs and feedbacks inherent to an industry with wide-reaching potential impacts.

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