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Biofuels: An Ethical Framework

by Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay
August 15, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 33

Five principles should govern the ethical production of biofuels, according to a report released in April by the the U.K.-based think tank Nuffield Council on Bioethics (NCB):


Biofuels: An Ethical Framework

1. Biofuels should not be produced at the cost of people’s fundamental rights.

2. Biofuel production should be environmentally sustainable and not cause biodiversity losses, water overconsumption, and pesticide and fertilizer pollution.

3. Biofuels should reduce total greenhouse gas emissions during the entire lifecycle of their various sources.

4. Biofuel production must recognize the rights of people to just reward, including adequate payment for labor and allotment of intellectual property to deserving parties.

5. The costs and benefits of biofuels—financial, environmental, political, or social—must be equally distributed among people.

The principles emerged from NCB’s analysis of biofuel production after numerous stories emerged in the media and in the scientific literature charging that biofuels are not fulfilling their promises to society: They didn’t really reduce greenhouse gas emissions and appeared to have negative effects on food security, the environment, and the rights of farmers and landholders in developing countries.

Realizing that the pros and cons of biofuels were often discussed in a piecemeal fashion, NCB took it upon itself to do an integrated analysis of all the ethical concerns of biofuel production and come up with recommendations on how to better set government policies to guide biofuel production.

The final report, available at, includes an ethical framework with five principles that policymakers can use to evaluate biofuel technologies and guide policy-making. Alena Buyx, the assistant director of the secretariat at NCB, and Joyce Tait, the chair of NCB’s working party on biofuels, briefly explained the five principles for ethical biofuel production in a Science article (DOI: 10.1126/science.1206064).


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