University of Calgary

Ethics of biofuels

December 17, 2010

Ethics of biofuels

By Morten Paulsen

Michal Moore co-authors a policy paper that questions the ethical issues around biofuel production.  Photo credit: Riley BrandtMichal Moore co-authors a policy paper that questions the ethical issues around biofuel production. Photo credit: Riley BrandtWe place an increasing demand on energy resources with each passing year, both to match new population growth, but also to meet the changing intensity of industry and commercial energy-intensive applications. With this comes an increase in greenhouse gases and a corresponding demand to minimize them often by emphasizing so-called “green” alternatives.

According to a paper released Tuesday Dec. 14 by The School of Public Policy, it is time for regulators and policy makers, in Canada and around the world, to take a step back and start asking basic questions about the development of green alternatives such as substitutes for fossil fuels.

Michal Moore, senior fellow, School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary and co-author Sarah M. Jordaan at Harvard University in the Earth and planetary sciences department examine the relative benefits of biofuels and ask the question as to whether or not the ethical issues of including a higher fraction of these in the overall fuel mix should be more critically examined by regulators and policy-makers.

The paper challenges the assumption that wider use ethanol automatically offers a significant improvement over fossil fuels in terms of performance, impacts on food production as well as its greenhouse gas footprint. Among their conclusions, the authors describe the GHG advantage of ethanol over gasoline as “overstated”. They then suggest four challenges to large-scale ethanol production and subsidization that should be considered in land use decision-making including what is the effect of biofuel production on food costs, especially for poor populations and should more land be used for biofuel when the return of energy per acre is low?

While the paper does not provide immediate answers to these questions, it suggests that now is the time to improve the process for regulatory approvals involving biofuels by ensuring that the unintended consequences of ethanol production are considered in decision-making.

Commenting at a news conference held Tuesday to release the paper, co-author Michal Moore suggested policy decisions have not been based on the fullest considerations of the implications of ethanol. “Policymakers, especially in the US, have been in a rush to expand biofuel protection as a fuel substitute, without considering the impact on land use and food production. But they need to start thinking outside of the box of the corn lobby and simplistic views of energy independence and develop a more realistic view of impacts on climate change. If policy is designed to create better outcomes for everyone, then we need to subject policy to ethical tests. In many respects, current policy around biofuels fails those tests.”

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