1. ESRC Genomics Network (archive)
  2. Gengage
  3. The Human Genre Project

Egenis · Research

Fuelling Expectations: Biofuels Policy in the UK

Pietro Berti

Start date


Affiliated staff

Sabina Leonelli (Egenis – University of Exeter), Brian Rappert (University of Exeter)



Funded by

University of Exeter


My research focuses on the policy debates on sustainable road transport and liquid biofuels in the United Kingdom. The debate on sustainable road transport grounds on the acknowledgement of climate change and the finite nature of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are predicted to become increasingly scarce and costly in the next few decades (The_Royal_Society 2008-01-14; p. 1, 5). Furthermore, their use for energy purposes is blamed as the major human contribution to climate change (IPPC 2007-11-17; p.36). The UK road transport system is one the biggest sources of carbon emissions in the UK and relies almost entirely on fossil fuels. Liquid biofuels technologies can process a wide range of organic material (biomass) and convert it into fuels that can be used to substitute petrol and diesel in cars. Liquid biofuels are debated with respect to their potential in providing a sustainable solution for mitigating climate change by substituting fossil fuels in the road transport system.

My research deploys a multidisciplinary approach that extends from the fields of sociology of expectations and, more in general, science and technology studies to informational economics and energy policy. I investigated the expectations on policies and technologies held by the different typologies of actors that participated to the two rhetorical spaces selected for the analysis (van Lente and Rip 1998; p.222-223). A rhetorical space should be here interpreted as a space where different actors compete to establish their own expectations of policies and technologies over those of others in order to influence the perception of their respective audience.

The first rhetorical space analysed in my research constitutes of the official correspondences that the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP), the Environment, Food, and rural Affairs Committee (EFRAC) and the Environmental Audit Committee entertained with the UK Government between the mid-1990s and the end of 2000s (see below note 1). Within this period, road transport policy shifted from a ‘predict and provide’ paradigm to a sustainable development paradigm, creating a space for biofuels policy to emerge and evolve. I used these official correspondences as a time-series sample to conduct a historical analysis of the evolution of the sustainable road transport debate and the related biofuels debate.

The second rhetorical space analysed in my research constitutes of the consultation on biofuels policy that the Department for Transport launched the 15th October 2008 (see below note 2). This consultation sought views on specific proposals on biofuels policy in a critical moment of the controversy that interested the UK biofuels policy during 2006-2009. I used the original responses to the consultation as a cross-sectional sample to conduct a cross-sectional analysis of the opinions held by the wide range of actors participating to the consultation.

I investigated how the various actors involved in the above rhetorical spaces have represented expectations on policies and biofuels technologies and which weight they gave to the interests of the industry in those representations.


My research aims at unveiling how public authorities, industry associations, consultancies and non-governmental organisations mediate information on technologies and policies among their sources and audiences. Depending on their visibility and the trust they have been able to gain from their audiences, these typologies of actors and their accounts of information on technologies and policies are likely to exert a relevant influence in the process of consensus formation. The ultimate aim of this research is to investigate the role played by these typologies of actors in the diffusion of expectations on policies and technologies.

The analysis of the content of expectations on policies and technologies should include considerations of the logics sustaining their transfer among networks of heterogeneous actors. Reputation should be considered as an essential element for the successful transfer of expectations on policies and technologies. Hence, particular attention should be paid on how actors use information about themselves to instil trust in their respective audience in their attempt to build a reputation as reliable and expert source of information on technologies and policies. As conclusion to my research, I discuss an analytical approach designed to interpret and investigate the roles played by actors’ resource specialisation, expertise and reputation in the diffusion of expectations on policies and technologies.


Documentary Analyses

Historical Analysis:

The RCEP, the EFRAC, and the EAC sent their reports directly to the UK Government, which was then called to reply formally. The public authorities were then the main addressees of the official correspondences. However, as the whole correspondences were meant to be published online, it can be assumed that all these authorities took into consideration also their wider audiences when communicating to each other. As rhetorical space, the official correspondences were then oriented toward both the direct correspondents and the wider audience of taxpayers or voters.

This historical analysis compares how the UK Government and the other public authorities have represented expectations about technologies and their policies and which weight they gave to the interests of the industry overtime.

Cross-sectional Analysis:

The consultation collected 89 responses, among which several from biofuels producers and industrial actors, but also from a consistent number of other typologies of actors, such as industry associations, non-governmental organisations, public authorities and others. The UK Government was both the organiser and the main addressee of the consultation. The consultation allowed the participants to communicate their reasons and interests in the policy to the UK Government, but not to interactively argue their positions among themselves. Not meant to set up a proper dialogue among parties, the consultation relegated only to the UK Government the role of ‘consensus seeker’ among parties. This led the participants to tailor their responses specifically and uniquely to the UK Government. As rhetorical space, the consultation was then oriented towards the UK Government and not towards wider audiences.

This cross-sectional analysis compares the way in which the UK Government and the consultation’s participants have represented expectations on biofuels and their policies in their responses and websites.

Note 1:

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) was "an independent standing body established in 1970 to advise the Queen, Government, Parliament, the devolved administrations and the public on environmental issues. Although funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Royal Commission is independent of Government Departments. The Commission delivers its advice in the form of reports, which are submitted to the Queen and to Parliament" RCEP, 2011-03-22. Home - The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP).

The Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRAC) is a Select Committee of the UK Parliament: "The Committee is appointed by the House of Commons to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and its associated public bodies" EFRAC, 2012-11-08. Home - The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRAC).

The Environmental Audit Committee is a Select Committee of the UK Parliament: "The Environmental Audit Committee considers the extent to which the policies and programmes of government departments and non-departmental public bodies contribute to environmental protection and sustainable development, and it audits their performance against any sustainable development and environmental protection targets. Unlike most select committees, the Committee’s remit cuts across government rather than focuses on the work of a particular department" EAC, 2012-11-08. Home - The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC)

The official correspondences under analysis in chronological order:

RCEP, 1994-10-01. The 18th Report: Transport and the Environment. Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP)RCEP, 1997-09-18. The 20th Report: Transport and the Environment - Developments since 1994. Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP)EFRAC, 2003-10-29. Biofuels - volume I - 17th Report of Session 2002–03 - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. House of CommonsEFRAC, 2006-09-18. Climate change: the role of bioenergy - volume I - 8th Report of Session 2005–06 - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. House of CommonsEAC, 2008-01-21. Are biofuels sustainable? - volume I - 1st Report Session 2007-2008 - Environmental Audit Committee. House of Commons

Note 2:

A consultation is a collection of views about policies organised by the pertinent governmental department in the policy area of its competence. It is constituted of a specific list of questions and is open to anyone interested to participate.

The consultation under analysis:

DfT (2008-10-15). Consultation on Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (Amendment) Order 2009, Department for Transport (DFT).


IPPC (2007-11-17): Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) The_Royal_Society (2008-01-14): Sustainable biofuels: prospects and challenges, The Royal Society van Lente, H. and A. Rip (1998). 'The Rise of Membrane Technology: From Rhetorics to Social Reality.' Social Studies of Science 28(2): 221-254.