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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2018

Seeing Like a Standard: EU, sustainable biofuels, and land use change in Africa

Widengard, Marie; Nightingale, Andrea; Roberntz, Peter; Edman, Tobias; Carlson, Allan


Biofuels have expanded across the globe, generating a range of concerns in the places of production. One approach to controlling the effects of biofuel production has been sustainability standards. This article takes a 'seeing like' approach to analyse how the EU Sustainability standard contributes to narrowing the vision of what sustainable biofuels are. Six biofuel cases in Africa are examined through the lens of the standard, using remote sensing to investigate the criteria on land use and canopy cover change. The standard view is also compared to on ground views regarding the sustainability of the projects. The effects of seeing like the EU standard are two: 1) diluted seeing, which prioritises global environmental problems over more nuanced social and institutional aspects; and 2) distributed seeing, which transforms standardised sustainable biofuels into multiple, uncertain forms because of hybrid governance. High carbon losses due to biofuel projects were detected, but at the same time, the standard simplifies and skips over wider problems related to unsustainable biofuel projects.


Biofuels; land use change; standards; sustainability criteria; EU; sub-Saharan Africa

Published in

ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies
2018, volume: 17, number: 1, pages: 49-87

Authors' information

Widengård, Marie
University of Gothenburg
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Urban and Rural Development
Roberntz, Peter
WWF Sweden
Edman, Tobias
Geografiska informationsbyrån
Carlson, Allan
WWF Sweden

Sustainable Development Goals

SDG12 Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

UKÄ Subject classification

Other Natural Sciences not elsewhere specified
Social Sciences Interdisciplinary
Human Geography

URI (permanent link to this page)