Once the rockets are up, who should care where they come down? The problem of responsibility ascription for the negative consequences of biofuel innovations

T.H. Tempels*, H. Van den Belt

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


Responsible Innovation (RI) is often heralded in EU policy circles as a means to achieve ethically acceptable, sustainable innovations. Yet, conceptual questions on the specific notion of ‘responsibility’ and to what extent an innovation can be ‘responsible’ are only partly addressed. In this chapter the question of responsibility for the indirect negative effects of biofuel innovations is explored. While initially hailed as one of the much needed solutions in the global struggle against climate change, the use of biofuels has become increasingly criticised. It is argued that the increased production of biofuels has put smallholder farmers out of business, has given rise to increased food prices, sparking food riots in several countries, while also contributing to further environmental degradation as the demand for new biofuels requires the development of new croplands at the cost of forests and peat lands. In the current market-based system it is customary to disburden researchers and business companies from any responsibility for the more remote consequences of their actions. When harmful consequences are brought about through the mediation of (perhaps a long series of) market transactions, they are often considered inevitable and excusable and not an appropriate occasion for invoking anybody’s responsibility. But how broad is the scope of responsibility when it comes to the above mentioned social and ecological problems? By invoking the sacred duty to “innovate”, the business company could perhaps be exculpated. In our age, innovation is often so much celebrated that many negative impacts are duly accepted as the inevitable price of progress. By approaching responsibility from a perspective that takes into account the economic and ecological interconnectedness of the world, we show how the debate on Responsible Innovation in biofuels becomes tied in with global debates on economic justice and bioscarcity. In conclusion we argue that if we—assuming this interconnectedness—take the current requirements of “Responsible” Innovation seriously, it would result in a demanding practice that calls for a substantial departure from business as usual, which prompts the question to what extent it is reasonable to incorporate what are actually demands for global justice in programs for innovation.

Original languageEnglish
Article number135
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • Biofuels
  • Contestation
  • Food-energy-environment trilemma
  • Global interconnectedness
  • Responsible Innovation

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'Once the rockets are up, who should care where they come down? The problem of responsibility ascription for the negative consequences of biofuel innovations'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

  • Cite this