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Europe’s biofuel rules encourage unethical practices, inquiry finds

13 Apr 2011

European biofuel policies encourage unethical practices and are especially weak when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries, the results of an inquiry have shown.

An 18-month study by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics said that policies such as the European Renewable Energy Directive are particularly dire when it comes to protecting the environment, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and avoiding human rights violations in developing countries.

Professor Joyce Tait, who led the inquiry, said, ‘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.’

Tait added, ‘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.’

The Biofuels: Ethical Issues report said there should be overarching ethical conditions for biofuels produced in and imported into Europe.

It said there must be a focus on making biofuels environmentally sustainable and making sure they actively contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases.

‘Researchers are developing new types of biofuels that need less land, produce fewer greenhouse gases and do not compete with food, but commercial-scale production is many years away,’ said Professor Ottoline Leyser, another author of the report.

Leyser added that there must be more direction from government to encourage ethical types of biofuels.

The two main transport biofuels in use today are bioethanol – made from maize and sugar cane – and biodiesel, which is produced from palm and rape seed oil.

The European Renewable Energy Directive sets out the aim of deriving ten per cent of transport fuel from renewable sources by 2020.

In addition to this, there are also individual country targets. The UK, for instance, has a stated aim of sourcing five per cent of its transport fuel from renewable energy by 2013.

To meet both these overarching targets and the ambitions of individual countries, biofuels are being imported from countries that do not have responsible or enforceable policies on climate change.

In the UK, for instance, biofuels make up three per cent of UK road transport fuel, sourced mainly from Argentina, Brazil and Europe.

‘Tackling climate change whilst providing energy and fuel for a growing global population presents us with a formidable challenge,’ said Tait. ‘We have developed these ethical principles with biofuels in mind, but we urge policy makers to use them as a checklist for all new technologies. Biofuels, if produced in an ethical way, have great potential to contribute to the energy mix, but they alone cannot solve our problems.’

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