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Demystifying the Social Impacts of Biofuels at Local Levels: Where is the Evidence?


Correspondence address: Julia Tomei, UCL Energy Institute, University College London, Central House, 14 Upper Woburn Place, London WC1H 0NN, UK. E-mail:


Since the turn of the century, biofuels have been promoted not only for their potential to mitigate climate change and address energy security but also for the potential benefits to socio-ecological systems. However, the purported benefits were almost immediately called into question as evidence began to emerge of the potential negative consequences of biofuel production. Recent debates have highlighted the social impacts, particularly land access and food security, yet much of the academic literature on these social impacts remains in high level. This paper identifies peer-reviewed literature that documents the social impacts of biofuel expansion at the local (household and community) scale. A systematic review identified just seventeen research papers that presented evidence of the local livelihood impacts of biofuel production and processing. Three issues emerge from the review as especially important at the local level: household economics, food security and ecosystem services. Within the research, there is a bias towards the cultivation of Jatropha curcas in particular geographies (Africa and Asia). The evidence also shows that the costs and benefits are unevenly distributed within and between communities, with consequences for the ways in which social, economic and environmental impacts are experienced. We conclude by arguing that more evidence on the impacts of biofuels at the local level is desperately needed in order to demystify this complex issue and stimulate a more nuanced understanding of the winners and losers of this commodity.