Biofuel Madness

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics is made up, at the last count of 15 professors and four doctors whose talents and knowledge range over many specialities and disciplines. Professors have knowledge and my hope is that the Council’s report will be heeded by policymakers as they have set themselves the task of identifying and defining the ethical questions that are raised by the rapidly advancing field of biological science. Genetic modifications, advanced breeding techniques and synthetic biology (rather a contradiction in terms) are like much of science moving forward more quickly than the ethical understanding of how such advances should be used for the benefit of humanity. It was always the case. We move our knowledge more quickly than our understanding. Wisdom fails in keeping pace with the movement of change.

The report recognises that there is growing demand and dwindling supplies of fuel, and the challenge of climate change leads us to look for many new sources of fuel including those that can be obtained from agriculture. Governments have recognised the fuel potential in crops and by policies of subsidy have encouraged the use of bioethanol from corn wheat, sugar cane and biodiesel from palm and rapeseed oil.

However, as the report makes clear there have been increasing concerns about the emissions produced from biofuels (I have reported on them extensively in these pages for three years) and the effect of developing biofuels on food prices and food security as well as water supplies, land use and land prices, all of which also affect climate change. People have been concerns about the effect of a large biofuel industry on poverty, biodiversity and pollution.

Now we are moving to a second phase of research – second generation biofuels, to see if we can develop biofuels which produce high energy, use little water and fertiliser, do not pollute and do not make people poorer or life worse for the benefit of inefficient and often unnecessarily extravagant energy use. The Council points to the promise of fuel made from lignocellulosic conversion, a complicated chemical process which can render organic material into solid and liquid fuel. The promise has yet to be fulfilled.

Against this background the Council examines the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive’s target that biofuels should account for 10% of transport fuel by 2020. This, more than any other part of the European Union’s climate change regulations has been criticised by environmentalists as being simply plain wrong. It does not reduce emissions and it is not environmentally sustainable. In some cases it adversely affects people’s quality of life, although not necessarily the quality of life of people in the European Union. Unfortunately, as the Council’s report shows, the EU’s biofuel’s policy is being implemented without regard to these critical ethical and climate change issues. The European Union is doing the wrong thing but with good but limited intentions.

To me in many ways the report is a statement of the bleeding obvious, but nevertheless should be warmly welcomed because of the weight of scientific opinion behind it. The next logical step would be for the Nuffield Council to undertake a similar study on biomass – wood burning power stations and boilers – also hailed as a climate change solution but like the use of biofuels, another rush into a darker and darker future.

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