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Fuelling the future

25 August 2013

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Adrian Kay is currently Professor of Politics & Public Policy at Swansea University and Honorary Professor in the Crawford School at the ANU. He also has an affiliation with Universiti Brunei Darussalam, where he was Senior Professor in the Institute of Policy Studies between 2017 and 2019.

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A decade ago biofuels were an exciting new policy frontier at the vanguard of the transition to a low carbon economy. Policymakers saw rapid increase in biofuels production as an important first step into tough choices about environmental, agriculture, energy and transport policy.

But ten years later, did they make the right choices in picking biofuels? And how much of their choice was already laid out before the evidence was in?

That is the subject of a new research paper by Crawford School’s Associate Professor Adrian Kay. The paper will be presented in September at the European Consortium for Political Research conference in France.

Kay said the paper highlights biofuels as an example of how policy decisions taken at one moment in time lock in and constrain future options available and the impact that can have on how policymakers go about designing public policy.
“Biofuels are a great example of this. Inherited legacies in agriculture, energy and environment policies encouraged the European Union and the United States to lock into a certain path when they were designing future policy around biofuels in 2002 and 2003,” Kay said.

“There are a lot of critics who believe that policy decision wasn’t necessarily the best one. It has been bad for access to food in some poor countries. It’s not particularly sustainable. From an environmental perspective, there have been questions about whether the emission reduction from biofuels is significantly different enough from fossil fuels to justify their use.”

Kay added that at the time, the decision wasn’t made without the evidence we have today and was set against unusual global circumstances, which lead to a less than ideal outcome.

“The policy was made with the backdrop of the Iraq War. There was pressure to do something on the environment.

“At the time there was scepticism by large environmental groups and by economists. The paper is about the process by which the European Union and the United States within a year of each other came to this policy rush to biofuels.

“The answer seems to be they needed to do something and they failed to acknowledge or understand how much they were locking themselves into a certain path.

“It’s a puzzling decision, in one sense, going against the grain that says government should stay away for creating markets. With this policy they aimed to create a whole new biofuels industry, including the manufacturing of biofuels, building an entire supply chain and building a whole new supply network.

“It’s assumed there is a sustainable, calibrated way of thinking about policy. That’s not always the case. Sometimes policy is determined by quite mundane politics and governments make mistakes.”

Kay said the research was important for policymakers because it reminded them to be wary of the way in which historical policy could determine their choices in future.

“Policymakers also need to be wary about how their decisions could constrain future policy.”

The research conducted by Kay was funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council.

By Belinda Thompson.

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