Biofuels and ethics


April 13th, 2011

Are biofuels ethical? Well the Nuffield Council for Bioethics seems to think not at the moment.

They are calling for a certification mark to ensure that the needs of local people in the developing world for food and the sustainable use of land are given priority over the wants of companies. The companies are seeking to meet the EU directive that says that by 2020 10% of Europe’s fuel should come from biofuels.

Potentially, bio fuels could be a prime example of technology injustice – the wants of rich consumers or governments overriding poor communities’ basic needs.

I once overheard a conversation, in which a biofuel manufacturer was discussing with a senior person from a government development support agency what percentage of an African countries land could be turned over to bio fuel production for Europe. I believe this was an initial conversation and seriously hope that it went no further.

At Practical Action we are not 100% anti biofuels – we have examples of where small scale local production or production from waste material can work well for poor communities. But the production of biofuels at the expense of food, the transportation costs of raw materials around the world and the unsustainable use of fertiliser and pesticides must all give us cause to pause .

Even more importantly, the assumption that big companies, or even the EU, can decide the fate of huge swathes of the developing world with only the wants of EU citizens considered must be challenged.

I understand that the EU has started along this path with the best intent BUT poor people have to be considered, consulted, listened to and not overridden because they lack power.

One response to “Biofuels and ethics”

  1. Robert Palgrave Says:

    I think it’s right to make the distinction between ‘Industrial biofuels’ and locally produced and used, small-scale biofuels.

    Biofuelwatch campaigns against the former – the substitution of fossil fuel energy in rich countries by bio-energy, in a vain attempt to reduce our carbon emissions. The consequences impact most heavily on poor countries – 80% of UK’s transport biofuel is imported, much of it from places where land is cheap or can be readily ‘acquired’, where labour is cheap and human rights laws are weak and of course where the climate produces high yields.

    So what if we get 10% of our transport energy from biofuels in 2020? Crop biofuels only generate a green house saving of around 35% compared to normal petrol and diesel. ( Using the discredited and incomplete calculation favoured by policy makers – if all the impacts of land use change and fertiliser use were accounted for the savings would be much lower). Ten percent of our transport fuel times a 35% saving gives an overall benefit of just 3.5%. Hardly a decent contribution to the overall 34% saving we are meant to be making by 2020, or the 80% required in 2050.

    Policy makers will claim that we have measures in place to ensure ‘sustainability’ of biofuels. True there are some limitations on what can be called renewable, but critically, these do not include mandatory requirements to ensure biofuels are produced in a way that does not harm people – for example in forcing up food prices, competing for water and fertilisers, or most alarmingly, triggering land-grabbing, displacement and violent conflicts.

    It is a scandal that UK and other EU governments are prepared to turn a blind eye to these issues when industrial biofuels will do nothing to slow the increasing concentration of green house gases, and will not delay the impacts of peak oil.

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