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Ethical impact of biofuels bonanza has 'backfired badly'

By Martin Leggett - 13 Apr 2011 19:52:0 GMT
Ethical impact of biofuels bonanza has 'backfired badly'

The rush to green the fuel in our tanks by turning increasingly to biofuels - and so reduce climate-damaging emissions - has kicked out unintended consequences across the globe. One has been higher food prices, as more profitable biofuels out-compete food crops for land use. Now a study from the UK's Nuffield Council on Bioethics sees another major fallout - the unethical impact on peoples living in and around the new biofuel plantations. They are suffering from degraded human rights, a depleted environment and a loss of traditional access to lands, says the study.

The report, Biofuels: ethical issues, which has been put together as part of an 18-month inquiry, sees the current policies in both the US and EU as failing to deliver across a range of important environmental and ethical issues. In order to overcome these, the authors, led by Professor Joyce Tait, propose that all biofuels should tick a 5-pointed checklist, that would allow them to be certified as fully ethical - similar to the certification used for FairTrade products.

The drive towards biofuels has come in part because they were seen as a quick-fix for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which are known to be driving climate-change. Governments that were keen to show positive action in cutting their share of the emissions burden, turned to biofuels - such as ethanol from sugar cane, or biodiesel from palm oil - because these could be bought on tap quickly.

The European Renewable Energy Directive has a 10% renewable fuels target for transport, by 2020, and the UK a similar 5% target for 2013. Much of the biofuel needed to meet these governmental aims has had to come from outside of the countries concerned - and the result has been that ethical recommendations have been flouted by some biofuel producers, say the reports authors.

There is already a patchwork of national and regional ethical standards for biofuels, but these are not applied consistently. So the report suggests taking a global initiative - put together by the independent Swiss Energy Center, and known as the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels - as a good foundation for a universal certification scheme.

Professor Joyce Tait said of biofuels that ''current policies and targets that encourage their uptake have backfired badly. 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.''