Published online 12 April 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.230
Corrected online: 6 May 2011

News

Biofuels need enforceable ethical standards

Europe's renewable energy targets have 'backfired'.

cornStricter ethical and environmental standards are needed to balance land use for food and for biofuels.FANCY

European policies to boost biofuel use have driven an "unsustainable" and "unethical" expansion of global production, bioethicists warn in a report today.

Policies such as the European Renewable Energy Directive, through which European Union (EU) states committed in 2008 to source 10% of their transport energy needs from renewable fuels by 2020, have "backfired badly", says Joyce Tait, a science-policy expert and lead author of the study.

The rapid growth of biofuel production in some developing countries has led to deforestation, rising food prices and the displacement of indigenous people, says the report — Biofuels: Ethical Issues — released today by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, a think-tank in London.

The report says that existing policies should be replaced by a new enforceable strategy and strict ethical and environmental standards. It suggests six principles as the basis for future biofuel policies. These include respecting people's rights to food, work and health when producing biofuels. In addition, biofuels should be environmentally sustainable, contribute to a net reduction in total greenhouse-gas emissions and adhere to fair-trade principles.

Swift sanctions

The report proposes the establishment of a compulsory scheme to certify that biofuels produced in, or imported into, the EU meet human-rights standards. It also suggests that the European Commission should set up monitoring systems to enable swift sanctions against those found to be abusing human rights.

In addition, the report calls on the United Nations Environment Programme to develop an international standard for the environmental sustainability of biofuels.

Researchers are developing types of biofuels that can be grown on less land and produce fewer greenhouse gases, but this next generation is still years away from commercial use. The report calls on policy-makers to spur research and development in these technologies that also could reduce the effect of biofuels on food security.

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If a biofuels technology meets all the proposed environmental and ethical standards, then there is a "duty" to develop it, the report says, because biofuels have the potential to help tackle climate change and provide new jobs and sources of income, especially for poor farmers in developing countries.

Richard Templer, director of the Porter Institute for Sustainable Bioenergy Research at Imperial College London, says he "can't disagree" with the ethical principles set out in the report. But he points out that the land used for biofuel production is only a fraction of that used for agriculture. "We would like to see these principles apply to all uses of land," he says.

Biofuels cannot become economically sustainable if those industries that account for the majority of land use do not also abide by the principles, Templer adds. 

Corrected:

This article incorrectly stated that the Nuffield report said that biofuel production in Brazil had led to deforestation, rising food prices and the displacement of indigenous people. The report did not explicitly name Brazil in this way, and the story has now been corrected.
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