Report: Current European Biofuel Policies 'Unethical'

Daniel is a deputy news editor for Science.

A report from the influential British think tank the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has concluded that current U.K. and European policies on biofuel use are encouraging unethical practices, including harm to the environment, threats to food security, and human rights violations in countries where the fuels are grown. The council recommends that the European Union set up a certification scheme for biofuel producers, similar to fairtrade schemes, to ensure ethical production, and encourages research into alternative technologies such as lignocellulosic and algal biofuel.

The E.U.'s Renewable Energy Directive lays down a target of 10% of Europe's transport fuel being biofuel by 2020. U.K. biofuel usage, by comparison, currently stands at 3%. The Nuffield report says that that target has encouraged unethical production in countries that supply the European market. In some countries, production has been scaled up so quickly to meet such targets that workers' rights to adequate food and water, health provisions, and access to land have been infringed. The report suggests that targets should be replaced with more sophisticated strategies that consider the wider implications of biofuel production.

An E.U.-sponsored certification scheme should adhere to the following principles:

  • Biofuels development should not be at the expense of human rights
  • Biofuels should be environmentally sustainable
  • Biofuels should contribute to a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions
  • Biofuels should adhere to fair-trade principles
  • Costs and benefits of biofuels should be distributed in an equitable way

Policymakers should also provide incentives for R&D into biofuels that use less viable farmland, avoid doing social and environmental harm, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A policy piece published online by Science yesterday by authors affiliated with the Nuffield effort says:

Despite vigorous debate, there has been little systematic ethical analysis and few efforts to develop policies that implement a more ethical approach to biofuel production. The problems of biofuels have often been discussed in a piecemeal way, but to avoid harm and reap potential benefits, ethical concerns should be part of an integrated analysis that gives a clear policy steer.

Posted in Climate, Europe, Policy