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Spanning Boundaries for Alternative Aviation Fuels

Biomass production for energy purposes has risen considerably in recent years. The biggest growth in this area has been in the production of liquid biofuels for the transportation sector using agricultural crops as an alternative feedstock to crude oil. The largest amount of liquid biofuel is produced form either ethanol (based on sugar or starch based crops) or biodiesel (based on oil-bearing crops). From this development, agricultural production has crossed the boundary from mainly producing food to a raw material for energy production. However, the large expansion of energy crops, induced by growing demand and supported by new energy and environmental policies, is not without problems. It generates increasing competition for natural resources, notably land and water, and it can also cause negative social (e.g. “land grabbing” by investors) and environmental impacts (e.g. water and biodiversity problems).

The boundary breaking nature of biofuel production needs to be addressed by boundary spanning research. The “Platform for Alternative Aviation Fuels” explores alternatives to conventional biofuel production by researching about innovative and more sustainable concepts for plant oil production drawing on sustainable land use and management. Thereby, the Platform crosses the borders of institutes, countries, climatic regions, cultures and scientific disciplines. Ultimately, it bridges the gap between science and the business application of biofuels.

Interdisciplinary research in several institutes, universities and countries

Research questions that are currently addressed by the platform include: How can significant amounts of plant oil be produced without raising additional pressure on land? How can the negative environmental and social impacts that are caused by plant oil productions worldwide to date be contained and more sustainable pathways explored? How can large amounts of plant oil be produced at a competitive price while meeting a sufficient quality to produce biofuel? How can supply chains be established and organised?

To answer these and further questions, knowledge in different disciplines is needed, such as plant biology, biodiversity, carbon storage, agriculture, sustainability, business models, etc. Prof. Dr. Stefan Schaltegger (CSM) directs the platform, addressing with the CSM team the fields of sustainability measurement, management and business models of plant oil production. Prof. Dr. Alexandra Klein (Professor of Ecosystem Functions, Institute of Ecology) covers with her team the effects of alternative energy crops on the environment. Both professors coordinate an interdisciplinary research team of 13 people with backgrounds in multiple disciplines, such as agribusiness, economics, business administration, political sciences, public law and communications¸ ecology and wildlife biology, eco-physiology and functional ecology.

The team is not only based in Germany. Internationally, the research project is supported by Professor Dr. Roger Burritt, Professor of Accounting at the Centre for Accounting, Governance and Sustainability (CAGS) (School of Commerce, University of South Australia). In addition, Professor Dr. Robert Bailis (School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University), whose research interests focus on sustainability, resource use, and environmental change in the developing world, supports the research team.

As boundaries are crossed, challenges occur. For example, different cultural and disciplinary backgrounds can lead to problems in communication. Cultural differences not only occur between researchers from different geographical and disciplinary backgrounds. Differences in problem solving, application of scientific methods as well as distinct ways of communication challenge interdisciplinary research on a daily basis. Accepting these challenges, many fruitful discussions and sometimes unexpected results arise every now and again.

Concepts generating ecological, economical as well as social benefits

Acknowledging the requirements of sustainable agriculture, two concepts for different climatic zones are particularly investigated:

  1. Double cropping systems with annual oil plants in temperate regions, i.e. the use of existing agricultural land in fallow periods between two main crops, or direct mixing of main crops and oil-bearing plants in Germany;
  2. Silvopastoral systems with perennial oil plants in tropical and subtropical regions, i.e. the farming of oil-bearing trees in existing pastures in Brazil providing complementary benefits of enhanced biodiversity, ecosystem services and smallholder integration.

Both concepts follow the main principle to improve the total crop yield on land that is already agriculturally used, while avoiding the often criticised sustainability issues of biofuel resulting from direct land-use change. Given that one of the main research topics of the project focuses on Agrocomia palm trees in Brazil, geographical boundaries have to be overcome in the project.

Transdisciplinarity – acknowledging farmers’ and business’ needs

Transdisciplinarity implies that the precise nature of a problem to be solved is not predetermined and needs to be defined cooperatively by actors from science and business practice. Therefore, research and practice come together in the project. The scientific part of the project focuses on alternative pathways for a sustainable plant oil production, and the practical part implements these projects into a real life context. Involving local actors into the research is essential to improve the sustainability of plant oil production in the long term. Thus, oil millers, farmers associations, and local farmers are involved in the research in Germany as well as (smallholder) farmers, NGOs, plantation owners and civil society in Brazil. Language, culture and different perceptions of sustainability are only few of the challenges that need to be overcome. These boundaries can be spanned by choosing transdisciplinary, community-based, interactive, or participatory research approaches.

Tina Hildebrandt and Jan Wreesmann

More about spanning sustainability management boundaries in the latest CSM Newsletter: