Towards Sustainable, Ethical Biofuels

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has been consulting since December on ‘New Approaches to Biofuels’. Today the Society of Biology submitted its response, to which members of the BES have contributed.

The aim of the Nuffield consultation is to explore the ethical implications of new developments in biofuel production, so-called ‘second generation’ biofuels which can be made from woody biomass, from wastes and residues and from marine resources such as algae. A Working Party convened by the Council will consider the potential benefits and disadvantages of advances in biofuel production, along with the ethical, social, legal and economic issues raised. The Working Party will aim to make policy recommendations where appropriate.

In response to the consultation, the Society of Biology made the following key recommendations:

1. Material that can be used as food for people or livestock should not be used as feedstock for biofuels because to do so would adversely affect food security.

2. Non-food crops, waste biomass, algae, and microbes could be used to produce next generation biofuels, but only if comprehensive lifecycle and ecosystem analyses show that sustainable production is possible. For example, intensive monocultures of non-native species (e.g. Miscanthus sp.) may have negative impacts on water quality, biodiversity and landscapes.

3. Land with high biodiversity value should not be used to grow biofuels, nor should their growth ever displace other uses onto such land unless there is clear justification and no viable alternative. Land-use choices should be subject to comparative analysis through an ecosystem approach.

4. Biologists can play a key role in generating new approaches and technologies towards the goal of sustainable biofuel development.

5. It is imperative that adopted biofuels are subjected to full life-cycle analysis for energy efficiency, ecosystem and social impact, and sustainability. Sustainability criteria should be mandated EU-wide. The recent decision in favour of optional recommendations rather than binding criteria is disappointing and very unlikely to succeed in delivering the degree of environmental stewardship so urgently needed.

6. A robust policy to reduce energy use should be a primary objective. The promise of biological and other energy sources should not deter these efforts. Energy saving measures are often more environmentally sustainable, and significantly cheaper than novel fuels and processes. Energy saving and efficiency measures should be implemented vigorously by governments, organisations and individuals.

The full response can be accessed through the ‘Consultation Responses’ section of the BES website.

The Society of Biology is the umbrella body for the biosciences, and was formed by the unification of the Institute of Biology and Biosciences Federation in October 2009.