Energy and Ethics

Biofuels of the future will need to do more than meet global expectations for clean, renewable sources of energy. They’ll also need to meet ethical principles.

These include hewing to clearly defined environmental and social standards, says a report from the United Kingdom’s Nuffield Council on Bioethics. But, adds the council, if those standards are met, then the world not only should move ahead on biofuels, but also has an ethical duty to do so.

“We’ve laid down these specific requirements for biofuels. But it shouldn’t be a case of, `Well, if you can do all of this, that’s OK.’ We’re saying there’s a reason why we have biofuels,” said Nigel Mortimer, managing director of North Energy Associates Ltd., and a member of the working party that produced the report. Issues driving the search for clean renewables, especially global climate change, mean “there is an imperative there.”

The report found fault with practices used by some producers making biofuels from corn and sugarcane ethanol. And it said the future, and the promise of biofuels, will lie with success indeveloping cellulosic and other biofuels that do not compete for food or damage the environment.

The headline-grabber was the finding that legal targets for adding biofuels to gas and diesel in the UK and Europe should be replaced with a more sophisticated target-based strategy thatconsiders the wider consequences of biofuel production. The council said the strategy should incorporate a comprehensive ethical standard for all biofuels developed and imported into the European Union, with the standard being based on the following five principles:

1.  Biofuels development should not be at the expense of human rights.

2.  Biofuels should be environmentally sustainable.

3.  Biofuels should contribute to a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

4.  Biofuels should adhere to fair trade principles.

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

Less heralded was the report’s sixth principle—that if those criteria are met and biofuels can play a crucial role in mitigating dangerous climate change, then there is a “duty” to develop them.

The London-based council is an independent body created in 1991 that examines and reports on the ethics of biology and medicine. Its 18-month inquiry into the ethics of biofuels was prompted by concerns that mass production of this “green” solution was producing some non-green side effects, including deforestation and displacing indigenous people.

Under the European Union’s renewable energy directive, 10 percent of transport fuel must come from renewable sources such as biofuels by 2020. But the council recommended that policymakers replace the current biofuels targets with a target-based strategy that considers the wider consequences of biofuel production.

The report has drawn some criticism, especially from Brazil, with regards to accounts of negative environmental effects of sugarcane ethanol production, including links to deforestation and alleged unhealthy and even dangerous working conditions onsome plantations.

However, the report also notes that the Brazilian government has set up zoning laws to restrict sugarcane growth in or near environmentally sensitive areas. Meanwhile, many sugarcane mills in the ethanol production sector have high standards of employee care, including provision of health and educational services for workers, with some also maintaining schools and nurseries in the local area.

At the UK offices of international energy company BP, which has made major investments into biofuels (including funding the Energy Biosciences Institute), reaction to the report was generally positive, said Olivier Macé, vice president of Global Strategy & External Affairs for BP Biofuels.

“We felt the report was thoughtful, was asking the right questions and talking about the right issues,” he said.

The report’s assessment of problems in producing some biofuels seemed fair, said Macé, but officials were disappointed with the way the report was presented to the media, with the angle that current UK and European biofuels policies encourage unethical practices.

The council found that, generally, problems with biofuels stem from policy, not technology. Target-based policies are a concern because they establish artificial markets for large-scale production, which results in providers scaling up production as quickly and easily as possible, the report found.

It didn’t endorse any particular kind of fuel but said that lessons learned from the problems with established biofuels must be kept in mind when developing new ones.

“In essence, we’re not saying biofuels are good. We’re not saying biofuels are bad,” said Mortimer. “We’re saying you can have good and bad biofuels and what you should do is promote the good ones.”

Macé agreed with that.

“The sheer size of the energy task in front of us is massive,” he said. That task includes producing more energy that is low in carbon and still affordable. “I don’t think that there are many people in our western societies who are actively engaged in realizing the challenges of that task. So, for me, what the report was saying with Principle Six is we really need to use all the good options that we have to face this monumental task. We really cannot afford to dismiss a good solution if it exists in front of us."

Joyce Tait, who chairs the Nuffield council, has also written that the same ethical standards should apply to all comparable technologies. "There is a risk that putting barriers (i.e. ethical conditions) in the way of biofuels development could inhibit their development, while the principles we have developed continue to be violated in other agricultural, energy generation, or trade practices," she wrote in Global Change Biology in 2011. "In addition, while biofuels, if produced in an ethical way, have great potential to contribute to the energy mix, they alone cannot solve our problems. We therefore propose that our ethical principles be used as a model or benchmark in all comparable technologies and products."

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