• Ethics body asks: how green are new biofuels?  

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Ethics body asks: how green are new biofuels?  

Feb 11 2010

The UK Nuffield Council on Bioethics is today calling for people’s views on the potential of new types of biofuels, such as fuel produced by algae, to provide us with a greener source of renewable energy.

First generation biofuels are produced mainly from food crops such as sugar cane, soy bean and wheat. But in some cases their net greenhouse gas emissions are not much better than those of fossil fuels and there have been concerns about their impact on the environment, food availability, and farmers and communities in developing countries.

“Research into new types of biofuels is looking more promising,” said Professor Joyce Tait, Chair of the Council’s Working Party on biofuels. “Rather than using food crops to produce biofuels, in the future we may be able to use algae, trees, the inedible ‘woody’ parts of plants, and agricultural waste. In addition, scientists are working to increase the yield of biofuel crops and improve the production process, in order to maximise the energy output of land and reduce net greenhouse gas emissions.”

“But before these new types of biofuels are brought into wider use, we are considering their potential to meet our energy needs, support economic development and, along with changes in lifestyle, help address climate change in an ethical and sustainable way. We need to think early about how we can avoid the problems of first generation biofuels,” said Professor Tait.

The Council will consider how the policies of governments and international organisations affect biofuel production and research. “A new legally-binding agreement was not reached in Copenhagen but there are a wide range of existing national and international policies that influence biofuels, such as greenhouse gas emission targets, subsidies, research funding and trade agreements,” said Professor Tait. “Industry investment also has a major impact on the direction of biofuel development, but the changeable nature of biofuel governance has created a lack of investor confidence.“

“We also want to find out how consumers feel about moving towards a greater use of biofuels. People’s attitudes will have a major impact on whether biofuels can successfully become part of the ‘energy mix’.”

The amount of land in developing countries used for biofuel production has increased over the past few years. Problems have arisen such as the displacement of local communities, poor conditions for workers, and environmental pollution. For example, large-scale palm oil production in Indonesia has led to conflicts with local communities over land rights. “We want to ensure that the ethical dimension is taken into account. We want to see that the production of new types of biofuels, especially in developing counties, has a positive effect on local communities and supports economic development by creating jobs and new sources of income,” said Professor Tait.

“We want to hear people’s views on how we can best promote, provide incentives for, and regulate new types of biofuels in ways that are both ethical and sustainable, and we will use our findings to advise policy makers.”

The Council would like to hear from anyone with a personal or professional interest in biofuels, both from developing and developed countries. The deadline for responses is 15th March 2010.

The Council’s Working Party on biofuels includes members with expertise in science, the environment, ethics, law, policy, economics, the commercial sector, energy security, and sustainable and international development. In addition to gathering views during the public consultation, the group will talk to experts from developed and developing countries. Contributions will be carefully considered, and a report setting out the Council’s findings will be published in winter 2010/11.


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