• Open Access

The ethics of biofuels


Joyce Tait, tel. +44 0 131 650 9174, fax +44 0 131 650 6399, e-mail: joyce.tait@ed.ac.uk


The rapid development and adoption of biofuels has been driven by a wide range of targets and other policy instruments, but first-generation biofuels have been widely criticized. In light of the development of new biofuel technologies that aim to avoid the problems of the past, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics conducted an 18-month inquiry on the ethical, social and policy issues raised by both current and future biofuels. The Council concludes that many biofuels policies fail to take consideration of important ethical principles, such as protecting human rights, environmental sustainability, climate change mitigation, just reward, and equitable distribution of costs and benefits. It proposes an overarching ethical standard for biofuels, enforced by a certification scheme for all biofuels produced in and imported into Europe and ideally worldwide.


First-generation biofuel production has been criticized for leading to deforestation, disputes over food prices and land use, and human rights violations (Koh & Wilcove, 2008, Renewable Fuels Agency, 2010). In addition, claims that they reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) have been contested (Searchinger et al. 2008, Lapola et al. 2010). The growing awareness of these significant problems has supported the development of new biofuels technologies. This is a rapidly growing field, focussing on the use of biomass feedstocks that can be produced without harm to the environment or local populations; are in minimal competition with food production; need minimal input of resources such as land and water; can be processed efficiently to yield high-quality liquid biofuels; and are deliverable in sufficient quantities. However, regarding current commercial production, biofuels made from food crops are still dominant.

The development and adoption of biofuels has been driven by a wide range of targets and other policy instruments, which directly or indirectly affect biofuels. For example, the European Renewable Energy Directive (RED) effectively established that biofuels should account for a minimum of 10% of transport fuel by 2020 (EC, 2009). The UK's Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation states that 5% of transport fuel should come from renewable sources by 2013 (UK Government, 2009). The US Renewable Fuel Standard mandates that by 2022, 36 billion gallons come from renewable sourses (US Government, 2007).

Against this backdrop, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics set up an inquiry in 2009, which I led, on the ethical, social and policy issues raised by current and new biofuels. The Nuffield Council is an independent body based in the United Kingdom with an international reputation for influencing policy and promoting debate on bioethics. The Council's conclusions were published in a report on 13 April 2011, and in this article I outline an ethical framework for evaluating biofuels technology and a number of specific recommendations for policy, as set out in more detail in the Nuffield Council report (Nuffield Council on Bioethics, 2011).

Ethical framework

Biofuels occupy a space where several of the modern global challenges interlink, including mitigating climate change, the need for a secure supply of sustainable energy and interest in further economic development. Several widely held moral values are relevant to these challenges and to current and new biofuels.

First, human rights should be enjoyed by all human beings, capturing a universal element of the concept of global justice. Biofuels production violates human rights when it endangers food security or displaces local populations from the land they depend on for their daily subsistence. Similarly, biofuels production becomes a human rights issue when it threatens or destroys ecosystems and natural resources that are critical to the health and subsistence of people.

Second, solidarity is the idea that we have duties to support and help each other, in particular those who cannot readily support themselves. For biofuels development, the value of solidarity requires countries or companies to ensure just reward, that benefits are shared equitably, and that burdens are not laid upon the most vulnerable in society.

Third, sustainability is about protecting the environment for the benefit of future generations, which requires us to act as ‘stewards’ of the natural world, treating our successors as we would want to have been treated by our predecessors.

From these moral values, we derive six ethical principles that can be applied to the field of biofuels. These are:

  • 1Biofuels development should not be at the expense of people's essential rights (including access to sufficient food and water, health rights, work rights and land entitlements).
  • 2Biofuels should be environmentally sustainable.
  • 3Biofuels should contribute to a net reduction of total GHG and not exacerbate global climate change.
  • 4Biofuels should be developed in accordance with trade principles that are fair and recognize the rights of people to just reward (including labour rights and intellectual property rights).
  • 5Costs and benefits of biofuels should be distributed in an equitable way.

We then consider whether in some cases there may be a duty to develop biofuels. To address this we propose a sixth principle:

  • 6If the first five principles are respected and if biofuels can play a crucial role in mitigating dangerous climate change then, depending on additional key considerations, there is a duty to develop such biofuels.

The additional key considerations referred to in principle six are: absolute cost; the availability of alternative energy technologies; alternative uses for biofuels feedstocks; the existing degree of uncertainty in their development; their irreversibility; the degree of participation in decision making; and the overarching notion of proportionate governance.

We recommend that policy makers and other stakeholders use these ethical principles as a benchmark when evaluating biofuels technology and policy development. Next, we test existing biofuels policies against our ethical principles and recommend how they could be improved.

Principle 1: protection of human rights

Target-based policies have encouraged biofuels producers to scale up production as quickly and easily as possible in order to meet the targets, which has sometimes meant developing biofuels in countries with less rigorous human rights regulations (World Bank, 2010). In addition, the targets make it attractive for developing countries to scale up their own biofuels production rapidly, which has in some cases been associated with human rights violations (Amnesty International, 2008). There has been some recent improvement in the human rights protections offered by policy. For example in Europe, the RED has incorporated a commitment to monitoring human rights, and the United Kingdom has developed social sustainability standards, but enforcement in this context is difficult to secure outside Europe.

Mandatory national biofuels targets should be set in such a way as to avoid incentivizing human rights abuses. Where monitoring through biannual reports detects such effects, sanctions need to be enacted effectively and swiftly. We recommend making certification based on comprehensive standards related to human rights mandatory for all biofuels, for example as part of a certification scheme such as the one recently developed by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB, 2010).

Principle 2: environmental sustainability

Biofuels targets, if set too high, could lead to violations of our second ethical principle on environmental sustainability because they encourage a rapid expansion of current biofuels production and use. Such rapid expansion is unlikely to be environmentally sustainable because of direct land-use change (dLUC) and indirect land-use change (iLUC), and the relatively poor environmental performance of some current biofuels feedstocks. In addition, targets are likely to cause rapid expansion of biofuels production abroad, in countries which are already noted for less stringent sustainability regulations (UNEP, 2009).

An optimum standard for environmental sustainability should be developed for biofuels production, for example by an international organization already working towards such a standard, such as the United Nations Environment Programme. This standard should be implemented as part of a proportionate biofuels certification scheme that prevents displacement and/or the leakage of unsustainable practices into other forms of agriculture.

Principle 3: mitigation of climate change

Mainly in the European Union (EU) but also elsewhere, both climate change mitigation and the reduction of GHG have become primary drivers for biofuels development and, accordingly, most policies now specify requirements for net GHG emissions savings from biofuels that count towards targets. However, without a policy instrument such as a certification scheme effectively ensuring all biofuels contributing to such targets deliver GHG emissions savings throughout their whole production process, some policies such as the RED could be seen to be outsourcing the problem of climate change mitigation.

Measuring GHG emissions as part of a life-cycle assessment (LCA) raises a number of methodological difficulties related to the purposes of LCA. In the context of biofuels regulation, it is necessary to answer the question: who is responsible for any given net change in total GHG emissions due to biofuels production? This is referred to as attributional LCA. For biofuels policy analysis, the relevant question is: what is the overall effect on GHG emissions (both direct and indirect effects) of a policy, which promotes production of a biofuel? This type of analysis is known as consequential LCA (Brander et al., 2009). Contentious areas of inclusion in such an analysis are: coproduct allocation; treatment of wastes and residues as biomass feedstocks for biofuels production; and dLUC and iLUC.

Most policies require that dLUC for biofuels production should be avoided, but there has been fierce debate over iLUC, and the extent of its impact on GHG emissions caused by biofuels production (Searchinger et al., 2008; European Commission, 2010; Hertel et al., 2010). Considerable controversy can be removed by appreciating this distinction between attributional LCA and consequential LCA, and accepting that different approaches legitimately answer different questions. We recommend that different biofuel types be certified on the basis of their life cycle GHG according to attributional LCA, to provide a coherent and consistent basis for GHG emissions calculations.

Taking a wider view, regulations that only apply to one form of land use, such as biofuels, are an ineffective way of dealing with the destruction of carbon stocks. A better approach would be for internationally agreed policies on climate change, with strong monitoring and policing measures, to prevent the loss of major carbon stocks. This would address land-use change directly at the point where it takes place and by those who are immediately responsible.

Principle 4: fair trade and just reward

Several policies, including the RED, now demand or draw attention to the fact that workers in countries that produce biofuels for export should be fairly paid (RED, 2009). However, even where such requirements exist, it is not clear whether all producing countries abide by these protective policies when faced with strong incentives for scaling up biofuels production. Investment in biofuels feedstock production in developing countries has been accused of not benefiting smallholders or farm labourers, for example where mechanization reduces job opportunities (Oxfam International, 2008).

As yet, no internationally agreed biofuels fair-trade principles exist. There are examples of nationally agreed principles, notably in Brazil with its ‘Social Fuel Seal’ for biodiesel, and there may be lessons to be learnt from this case (Ministério do Desenvolvimento Agrario, Secretaria da Agricultura Familiar, 2010). One international approach that has achieved a measure of success in generating fair wages and fairer-trade relationships has been the introduction of fair-trade schemes, but it is not clear that their simple application would be useful and sufficient in this context. Instead, we recommend that fair-trade principles should be developed as part of sustainable biofuels certification requirements by EU, national and international stakeholders.

Intellectual property (IP) regimes provide public benefits, encouraging innovation by providing private property rights in novel products and processes. The public interest can be jeopardized, however, if private rights are exercised in ways that prevent or restrict access to new goods or new knowledge. Although there is little evidence to suggest that, in the biofuels context, IP holders are using their rights aggressively, problems do exist with how IP systems are currently designed. The plant variety rights system allows breeders to use protected material for the purpose of breeding other varieties without the authorization of the plant variety right holder. But the right to use patented material for research purposes only applies where those acts are regarded as private, noncommercial use and experimental. The scope of this right is often defined very narrowly, closing off options for access and further development.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has produced a set of guidelines which outline principles and instances of best practice for licence agreements (OECD, 2006). We recommend that the United Kingdom should use this as a basis for a licensing scheme and a framework of biofuels principles and best practices. In addition, the availability of licensing arrangements with respect to biofuels technologies should be increased and more research on the economic and social impacts of IP in these fields should take place. Ideally, these recommendations should apply worldwide.

Principle 5: equitable distribution of costs and benefits

The costs and benefits of biofuels production may be associated with financial, environmental, political, social, or economic issues that confer benefits or burdens only on certain sections of society. For example, investment in biofuels to reduce GHG may pose threats to the human rights of workers and communities in poorer or more vulnerable countries, whilst delivering benefits for climate change in the developed world. The issue of equitable cost–benefit distribution is not specifically included in the RED and many other policies.

One of the key challenges for policies designed to support equitable cost–benefit sharing is the current skewed distribution of power, resources, resilience and options that characterizes global agricultural (and other) production chains. Policy instruments, such as innovation incentives, bilateral agreements between the United Kingdom and other countries, and project funding, should be developed and implemented to ensure that benefits of biofuels production are shared equitably.

Public–private partnerships constitute one mechanism for risk sharing and developing technologies and products that correspond to the needs of a variety of stakeholders in developing countries as well as those in the EU and United States. In addition, biofuels policy and future sustainability initiatives should not discourage local, small-scale biofuels production, particularly in developing countries that are fuel poor.

Principle 6: an ethical duty?

The final ethical principle states that, if the first five principles are respected and if biofuels can play a crucial role in mitigating dangerous climate change then, depending on additional key considerations, there is a duty to develop such biofuels. These key considerations include:

  • Will the costs of the development be out of all proportion to the benefits, compared to other major (public) spending priorities?
  • Are there competing energy sources that might be even better, for example at reducing GHG emissions, while still meeting all the required Ethical Principles?
  • Is there is an alternative and better use of the biomass feedstock?
  • Has fair attention been paid to the voices of those directly affected by the implementation of a technology?

Answering these questions should be part of a comprehensive comparative analysis of all different future energy and climate change abatement options, including comparison of energy portfolios with a different mix of technologies.

New biofuels

New approaches to biofuels could help to produce higher-yielding biofuels crops that better meet our ethical principles. However, there is a large discrepancy between the powerful targets and related penalties that are in place for currently used biofuels and the very few incentives for new methods for developing biofuels. Research councils should develop and implement specific policies that directly incentivize research and development of new and emerging biofuels technologies that need less land and other resources, avoid social and environmental harms in production, and deliver significant GHG savings.

Biotechnology, including advanced plant breeding strategies and genetic modification, could play a central role in bringing about further improvements. Therefore, the regulation of these technologies should be considered in the light of new evidence on risks and benefits, and some modifications might be needed to existing policies and regulations related to new crop developments for agriculture and forestry.

An ethical standard for biofuels

In binding together the specific recommendations we have made under each ethical principle, we recommend that biofuels should subject to a proportionate, target-based strategy that is in accord with our ethical principles and that drives change in a more nuanced, flexible and responsive way. We suggest the development of a comprehensive ethical standard for biofuels, enforced through a certification scheme, to include the protection of human rights and the environment, full LCA of GHG, trade principles that are fair, and access and benefit-sharing schemes. It should be set within wider frameworks for mitigating climate change and addressing land-use change (direct and indirect), and should be open to future revision as needed. Our recommendation applies to the EU but should ideally be adopted worldwide. To aid this, the EU and other developed countries around the world should provide financial support and advice to countries who might find it difficult to implement such certification.

There is a risk that putting barriers (i.e. ethical conditions) in the way of biofuels development could inhibit their development, while the principles we have developed continue to be violated in other agricultural, energy generation or trade practices. In addition, while biofuels, if produced in an ethical way, have great potential to contribute to the energy mix, they alone cannot solve our problems. We therefore propose that our ethical principles be used as a model or benchmark in all comparable technologies and products.

Policies around biofuels development are likely to continue to be in a state of flux for some time and we hope this report will provide a unique contribution to ensuring that policy decisions, nationally and internationally, are made in the full awareness of their ethical implications.