Integrated assessment models suggest that the large-scale deployment of bioenergy could contribute to ambitious climate change mitigation efforts. However, such a shift would intensify the global competition for land, with possible consequences for 1.5 billion smallholder livelihoods that these models do not consider. Maintaining and enhancing robust livelihoods upon bioenergy deployment is an equally important sustainability goal that warrants greater attention. The social implications of biofuel production are complex, varied and place-specific, difficult to model, operationalize and quantify. However, a rapidly developing body of social science literature is advancing the understanding of these interactions. In this letter we link human geography research on the interaction between biofuel crops and livelihoods in developing countries to integrated assessments on biofuels. We review case-study research focused on first-generation biofuel crops to demonstrate that food, income, land and other assets such as health are key livelihood dimensions that can be impacted by such crops and we highlight how place-specific and global dynamics influence both aggregate and distributional outcomes across these livelihood dimensions. We argue that place-specific production models and land tenure regimes mediate livelihood outcomes, which are also in turn affected by global and regional markets and their resulting equilibrium dynamics. The place-specific perspective suggests that distributional consequences are a crucial complement to aggregate outcomes; this has not been given enough weight in comprehensive assessments to date. By narrowing the gap between place-specific case studies and global models, our discussion offers a route towards integrating livelihood and equity considerations into scenarios of future bioenergy deployment, thus contributing to a key challenge in sustainability sciences.