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Biofuels: Ethical Issues

Nuffield Council on Bioethics | April 2011

FOREWORD by Joyce Tait

Public and industrial investment in biofuels began to accelerate in the 1990s both in the United States and Europe, stimulated in part by recognition of the challenges raised by human-induced climate change and the need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. But this is also part of a broader biotechnology-based vision for the 21st century of a new global green economy that, to quote the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, is "stronger, cleaner, and fairer."

However, as the Nuffield Council on Bioethics appreciated, this positive vision has a downside and early attempts to increase global production of biofuels have had serious negative impacts on the livelihoods of some of those who cultivate the land, on the sustainability of cultivation systems and on biodiversity. The starting point for this report was the widely held expectation that new technology based approaches to biofuels development would begin to address these negative impacts.

The Working Party's early meetings involved a fundamental reassessment of the task we had set ourselves. We recognized that the proposed new approaches are unlikely to solve all the problems inherent in current biofuels developments and that current approaches will remain dominant in the immediate future; we also recognized our very limited abilities to foresee the outcomes of current investments in basic research on biofuels. We also became aware of the technical challenges involved in scaling up biofuels production, from whatever source, to a point where it can have a significant impact on the global use of fossil fuels.

Rather than the planned "before and after new biofuels approach," this report considers the ethical issues raised by both current and potential future approaches to biofuels development, seeing this as an overlapping continuum, and attempting to influence the trajectory of biofuels development to meet the ethical principles set out in our framework.

We should be as precautionary about the risks of doing nothing as we are about the risks of developing new technologies.

We also realized the complexity of the balancing act we are intent on achieving. A continuing concern has been our desire to find ways to facilitate the development of new biotechnologies with the potential either to deliver societal benefits more effectively than before or to mitigate the negative impacts of current biofuels approaches. In attempting to ensure that innovative biotechnology approaches do deliver societal as well as technological benefits, we do not want to place hurdles in their path that will prevent their development altogether. Likewise, we do not want to impose inequitable burdens on biofuels development that are not applied to other similar areas of human activity such as agriculture.

Such decisions involve balancing one set of needs against another and our concern throughout our discussions has been to protect the needs of the most vulnerable, particularly in the developing world. This would include avoiding placing restrictions on their use of biofuels that would prevent them from taking up locally important opportunities because of internationally imposed restrictions, however well intentioned. Applying bioethical principles to the cause of fairness and justice in the world, recognizing that technological progress will be an important part of delivering these aims and being open to considering how these aims can best be reconciled have been our guiding motivations.

We have focused on policy, legislation and governance as the key to this balancing of ethical principles, technological opportunities and a diverse array of sometimes-conflicting human needs, in the context of uncertainty over which new approaches to biofuels will actually be feasible and over what timescale.

Exhorting people to make lifestyle changes will, of course, continue to be one approach to overall reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. However, this and other non-fuel-based power sources such as wind, wave and solar energy will not be sufficient to reduce global dependence on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. We will need new sources of liquid fuels and new ways of producing current biofuels more efficiently, and advanced biotechnology, including genetic modification, could be an important part of the toolkit to help deliver on these needs. Precautionary safeguards have already been built in to the development of advanced biotechnologies and this will not present any new hazards. Indeed, it is important that precautionary approaches are implemented in a balanced and equitable way—we should be as precautionary about the risks of doing nothing as we are about the risks of developing new technologies.

Effective policy needs to be underpinned by good evidence and we have been committed to maintaining high standards for the evidence that has contributed to our conclusions. Over the course of the project we found that in some areas, for example indirect land use change, the sheer complexity of the issues can mean that different, but equally valid, approaches lead to different outcomes from modelling analyses. In other cases, data and models are consciously used as weapons of argument in promoting the interests and values that are part of political power plays, with scant attention to the validity of the evidence on which they are based. In the context of biotechnology, this arises most often in ideologically motivated debates about biotechnology-based solutions to societal problems. As Arthur Miller has noted: "Evidence…is effort; leaping to conclusions is a wonderful pleasure"—the Working Party and Council staff have denied themselves this particular source of enjoyment.

The Council announced its decision to work on new biofuels-related developments in the immediate aftermath of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009, and the topic of biofuels has been the subject of a steady stream of media attention since then. As this document is on the brink of going to press, the European Commission has published its report on indirect land use change related to biofuels and bioliquids, announcing that there will be an impact assessment to decide on future policy actions. Policies around biofuels development are likely to continue to be in a state of flux for some time and we hope this report will provide an important contribution to ensuring that policy decisions, nationally and internationally, are made in the full awareness of their ethical implications.

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