Production of biofuels from different ethical dimensions

 15 Oct 2017 - 16:52

In a time where science and technology are advancing in fast pace, we as a community should step forward in a thoughtful way maintaining sustainability pillars (Social, Environment and Economic). Biofuel production concept has been practicing since long time ago. As a trail of tackling the deterministic consequences of using non-renewable energy, biofuel production was touted as the saviour to solve the problem. Although the spent efforts to mitigate the consumption of fossil fuels and to find alternative sources are commendable, the application of these alternative sources widely, have raised queries whether biofuels production can equally be distributed in the world without consequences or not.

Researches have shown that biofuel production is being developed and can produce a wide range of feedstock, such as biodiesel, bioethanol, biomethane and biohydrogen, the feature that makes the idea more useful. Also, many researches have demonstrated how various sources of biofuel production are efficient and how they can be improved through the advanced technologies. While many countries seem willing to reduce their greenhouse emissions, biofuel production has become an attractive choice because of its efficient energy, as well as applying it in wider area would not comprise a big difference in the way the non-renewable energy used previously. For example, it still can be used in internal combustions engines and combustions fuelled electric power plant.  

However, debates regarding to extending biofuel production in a larger domain have been accelerating in last decades. It is argued that using biofuel production in widespread area may have adversely impact on various aspects. Concerns were raised about the implications for farmers and consumers in developing countries regarding to this aspect and there could be social and environmental costs at the global scale. In this regard, the UN Secretary General - Ban Ki-moon, in his opening comments to the High-level Segment of the 16th session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, recommended that: “We need to ensure that policies promoting biofuels are consistent with maintaining food security and achieving sustainable development goals’’ (UN, 2008). Alongside these risks associated with increasing biofuel production, food security in developing countries is a point of focus and major concerns are being raised about exacerbating food security problem. To start with, in the short term, world population estimated to reach 9 billion by 2050, which means the demand on food will increase alongside. The enormous increasing in population growth poses a challenge for the whole world, and puts us in a large ethical dilemma, as partners in decision making, to offer the best solutions to deal with this challenge.

One of the deterministic consequences may follow the food security issue is increasing in food prices. The inflation is more likely to affect poorer and vulnerable groups. During 2007 – 2008 the world encountered an international food price crisis, the food commodities prices has increased dramatically, the sudden increase had spectacular effects on the poor people developing countries, who spent most of their income revenue on staple food. As it can be seen from figure 1, prices of different grains started to increase since 2008. Findings stated in a report ‘‘A note on rising food prices’’ that the inflation is ascribed to the production of biofuel crops.

Biofuels production contributed the increase in food prices, which led to 110 million people into poverty and added 44 million people to the undernourished. For this, the UN Special Rapporteur Jean Ziegler was quoted describing the practice of biofuel production as a ‘crime against humanity’.

Water availability in regions can be a challenge while freshwater is already scarce in several regions of the world. It is estimated that around 80% of the world’s population is prone to threat to water security. Besides, in such a critical time where the climate change is causing droughts and affecting water resources through the world, water resource became depletable. Higher temperature and less of rainfall will increase the need of irrigation. For example, in the Western US, water supply are highly susceptible to the melting that affect snowpack. Previous researches have concluded water availability can address threats and should be considered carefully.

On the other hand, biofuel production seems to offer great opportunities and promises to farmers, particularly, the poor farmers in developing countries, as it can guarantee for them sufficient income and a promising generous life. Different reports have conducted an assessment in Mozambique, and it was found biofuel production can enhance growth and reduces poverty. Another report shows that biofuel production has the potential to eliminate the poverty in drylands in India, and may eradicate poverty if it is carefully implemented.  

Diverting arable land into biofuels production land will have an impact on land appraisal, as land values will liable to increase. Simultaneously, this can offer opportunities to poor farmers. Production of biofuel crops can present a long-term opportunity for agricultural and rural areas in which the demand can promote the growth in supply and generate the resources to increase income and capital in rural areas.

When considering the different aspects that may be affected by biofuel production, putting environment into account should be the first thing to consider, as the environment represents important pillar to all of the previous aspects. If it is decided to plant biofuel feedstock, a native vegetation has to be eradicated, subsequently, ecological damage can be done in somehow. One of the concerns raised between ecologists and posing an actual danger is destroying local habitat. This can be done through destroying animal and plant habitations. Lessons can be learnt from previous example, such as amplification of corn ethanol production, whereas since 2005, the ethanol production has threatened lands enrolled in the US and amplification of palm oil plantations of natural habitats in Malaysia. On the other angle, recent study has shown native vegetation represents an excellent scrubber of carbon dioxide, and introducing new vegetation may result in elevation of carbon dioxide or/and less efficient removal of greenhouse emissions.

Moreover, further damages can occur through creating carbon debt. Converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas or grassland to produce crop-based biofuel requires large amount of energy, therefore, elevating greenhouse emissions. In Brazil, Southeast Asia and the United States a biofuel carbon debt was created by releasing 17 – 40 times more carbon dioxide than the annual greenhouse gas reductions that these biofuels could help by minimising fossil fuels emissions.

The overgrowing population and the energy demand are putting us under pressure and huge responsibility to select appropriate and environmentally friendly energy sources. It was concluded that biofuel production widely can lead to inequality, while in some cases, biofuel production may affect food and water security, and if it is not controlled, it may lead to further famine particularly in developing countries. Biofuel production has raised some concerns in terms of the direct effects to biota. However, biofuel production may introduce promises for some farmers as it can offer them sustainable profit. By the same token, biofuel production is intended to mitigate greenhouse emissions, however, changing land usage does produce carbon dioxide. The problem lies in the fact even bioenergy will absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, thence, bioenergy can only substitute non-renewable energy in the short term.

Finally, it was concluded, judging from the consequentialist theory, crop-based biofuel may lead to many environmental and social consequences, and judging from the deontological theory, and apart from infringement of food sources, production of biofuel crops may lead to inequitable access and unevenly distributed means of energy. Further researches are needed to alleviate the direct effects arising from land diverting and to develop the technology as biofuel production has proven it efficiency in some areas.

The writer is a graduate from University of Nottingham and Bachelor of Environmental Science.