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Biofuels: 6 Principles for Ethical Policymaking

By Alena Buyx | Making It: Industry for Development | August 25, 2011

The development of biofuels has been driven by three key global challenges: maintenance of energy security, economic development, and mitigation of climate change.

The apparent potential of biofuels to address all three of these challenges has made them an attractive option to policymakers, and a range of policy mechanisms that encourage the development and uptake of biofuels are in place. For example, the European Union's 2009 Renewable Energy Directive effectively established that biofuels should account for 10 percent of transport fuel by 2020—a target that Europe seems to be on track to meet.

However, current methods of biofuels production have been widely criticized for their effects on the environment, on food security and prices, and on the human rights of workers and communities. For example, the conversion of forests to palm oil plantations in Malaysia has raised concerns over detrimental impacts on biodiversity in the region and land grabs by palm oil producers may be forcing out indigenous communities.

A key challenge, therefore, is to ensure that policy decisions around biofuels are made in the full awareness of the ethical implications. Drawing on moral values such as human rights, solidarity, sustainability, stewardship, and justice, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has set out five ethical principles that policymakers should use to evaluate biofuel technologies and guide policy development.

1) Biofuels development should not be at the expense of people's essential rights (including access to sufficient food and water, health rights, work rights, and land entitlements).

2) Biofuels should be environmentally sustainable.

3) Biofuels should contribute to a net reduction of total greenhouse gas emissions and not exacerbate global climate change.

4) Biofuels should develop in accordance with trade principles that are fair and recognize the rights of people to just reward (including labor rights and intellectual property rights).

5) Costs and benefits of biofuels should be distributed in an equitable way.

To implement these principles, the Council proposes that European and national biofuels targets should be replaced with a more sophisticated target-based strategy that considers the wider consequences of biofuels production. The strategy should incorporate a comprehensive ethical standard for all biofuels developed in and imported into the European Union, enforced through a certification scheme. Ideally, the principles should also be embedded into wider international policies on, for example, climate change mitigation, environmental sustainability, land use, and human rights.

There is a sixth ethical principle in the Council's report:

6) If the first five principles are respected and if biofuels can play a crucial role in mitigating dangerous climate change then, depending on certain key considerations, there is a duty to develop such biofuels.

The development of new biofuels is a rapidly growing field of research, focusing on the use of biomass feedstocks that can be produced without harm to the environment; that are in minimal competition with food production; that need minimal input of resources such as land and water; that can be processed efficiently to yield high-quality liquid biofuels; and that are deliverable in sufficient quantities.

Two of the main approaches in development are biofuels made from the non-edible parts of crops (known as lignocellulosic biofuels), and biofuels made from algae. However, commercial scale production is many years away for most new types of biofuels. This is due, in part, to the large discrepancy between the powerful targets and related penalties that are in place for currently used biofuels, and the very few incentives for developing new biofuels.

Governments should therefore do more to support this research, for example by encouraging research funders to develop and implement policies that directly incentivize research and development of new and emerging biofuels technologies that will need less land and other resources, avoid social and environmental harms in production, and will deliver significant greenhouse gas emissions savings.

© 2011 Making It: Industry for Development. Republished with kind permission.

Read More: Agriculture, Business, Conservation, Development, Energy, Environment, Ethics, Food, Globalization, Human Rights, Innovation, Jobs, Science, Sustainability, Technology, Trade, Transportation, Malaysia, United States, Americas, Asia, Europe, Global

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