Report criticises ‘unethical’ European biofuels policy

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Current UK and European policies on biofuels encourage unethical practices, according to a report released today by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics following an 18-month inquiry.

Policies such as the European Renewable Energy Directive are claimed to be particularly weak when it comes to protecting the environment, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and avoiding human rights violations in developing countries.

They also include few incentives for the development of new biofuel technologies that could help avoid these problems, according to the report.

‘Biofuels are one of the only renewable alternatives we have for transport fuels such as petrol and diesel, but current policies and targets that encourage their uptake have backfired badly,’ said Prof Joyce Tait, who led the inquiry. ‘The rapid expansion of biofuels production in the developing world has led to problems such as deforestation and the displacement of indigenous people. We want a more sophisticated strategy that considers the wider consequences of biofuel production.’

In its Biofuels: ethical issues report, the Nuffield Council recommends biofuels should be environmentally sustainable and contribute to a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, biofuels should adhere to fair-trade principles and development of the fuel should not be at the expense of human rights.

‘These ethical conditions should be enforced through a certification scheme — a bit like the Fair Trade scheme for cocoa and coffee,’ said Tait. ‘This would create a market for environmentally sustainable and “human rights friendly” biofuels.’

‘We appreciate the difficulties in applying firm ethical principles in the real world, but existing biofuels policy is failing. We can set the standard in Europe and encourage the rest of the world to follow suit. This is a global problem that needs a global solution,’ she added.

Commenting on the report, Duncan Eggar, BBSRC bio-energy champion and chair of the RCUK Cross Council Bioenergy Strategic Co-ordination Group, said: ‘The ethics of biofuel research and development are very important and it is timely to draw all of these issues together in this helpful report, which we welcome.

‘Biofuels are currently the only viable alternative for liquid transport fuels — in particular for long-distance and heavy-duty road transportation, as well as aviation and marine transport — and so it is vital that new sustainable technologies are developed that minimise the ethical concerns outlined in the report.’