Dr. Peter Baker, CABI
Studies on the ethics of biofuels are starting to appear, in response to mounting concerns on a number of issues. The Nuffield Council’s report develops a framework to evaluate the various biofuels technologies. These include human rights, environmental sustainability, net reduction of greenhouse gases, and adequate remuneration for labour and equitable distribution of benefits. They conclude that many biofuel policies fail to satisfy ethical principles. The report hopes to give ‘a clear policy steer’ and incorporate the framework recommendations into certification schemes. A paper by Lena Partsch examines two certification systems and questions their legitimacy however, finding that they fail legitimacy and legal criteria through a lack of control and inadequate stakeholder representation. A French agricultural research committee representing two publically funded institutions also examines the ethics of biofuels, in particular palm oil, and finds that a simple mission-oriented strategy of improving production is no longer adequate for these institutions, which they imply may be becoming too subservient to private interests. They suggest that scientists should question not only the scientific merit of proposed research, but also its demands and social expectations. This will require interdisciplinary work with researchers in the humanities (legal, sociological and philosophical), to help scientists formulate and express the ethical problems they face.
Ever since Jean Ziegler, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, called the conversion of food to biofuels ‘a crime against humanity’1, there has been a widely acknowledged need to examine the validity of his statement. Now, four years later, reports that examine ethical aspects are duly beginning to appear.
The Nuffield Council’s report on the ethics of biofuels2 (briefly summarised by Buyx and Tait 20113) is a useful opportunity to see how a group of diverse experts, including medical doctors, academics and an industry official view the moral issues surrounding biofuels. They conclude that many biofuel policies fail to satisfy ethical principles. The report recommends that a range of ethical conditions should be considered with the hope of giving ‘a clear policy steer’ and incorporated into certification schemes. The report derives an ethical framework that includes five principles that policy-makers can use to evaluate biofuel technologies:
- Biofuels development should not be at the expense of people’s essential rights. The report suggests that the growth in biofuels may have already led to human rights abuses, for example, workers living in near-slavery conditions. Compulsory certification schemes are necessary, say the authors, and could help ensure that all biofuels meet human rights standards.
- Biofuels should be environmentally sustainable. Problems include biodiversity losses caused by direct and indirect land clearing and land-use change (e.g. a recent Hart & CABI report4), excessive use of water and pollution through pesticide and fertilizer use. Biofuel policies related to sustainability are generally weak and vary from country to country. The report recommends a mandatory and enforceable international environmental sustainability standard for biofuel production, ideally developed by an international agency such as the UN Environment Programme, to replace voluntary schemes which are works in progress, with a number of unresolved issues and imperfectly defined concepts that limit their effectiveness.
- Biofuels should contribute to net reduction of total GHG emissions. Although unmistakeably a fundamental requirement, there is still considerable uncertainty regarding measurement of emissions, and no controls to ensure that imported biofuels offer emissions savings throughout their production life cycle. Again, the report calls for a single international standard including a clear methodological framework for calculating GHG emissions across the whole biofuel life cycle.
- Just reward: biofuels should recognize the rights of people to adequate payment for labour. This is required by the European Renewable Energy Directive but producers outside the EU may not abide by these policies, which can lead to overwork and low wages. Policy-makers should implement strict requirements with strong audit trails for pay and working conditions that respect vulnerable populations.
- Costs and benefits of biofuels should be distributed in an equitable way. Investment in biofuels may threaten food security in poor countries, while delivering benefits for climate change and energy security in the developed world. Policies that govern biofuel production should balance needs of local and international markets and not disadvantage small scale producers who could provide essential energy to the local community. This is clearly not happening, with mounting evidence of land grabbing for biofuel production. The authors suggest that a cost-benefit analysis at the proof-of-concept stage should take account of the proposed ethical principles.
The authors make clear the large number of difficult ‘challenges’ (the word occurs more than 150 times in the report) facing ethical biofuel development and place a lot of emphasis on certification schemes to validate and verify. However the authors do not get around to considering the inadequacies surrounding certification itself. Happily though, this is the theme of a recent paper by Lena Partzsch5 from the Helmholtz Centre in Leipzig. She starts by reminding us of shortcomings in food certification systems that have tended to strengthen retail power at the expense of farmers in developing countries. Their marginalization, especially of smallholder farmers, therefore begs the question of how such deficiencies of certification as a private governance tool can be overcome and fully legitimised.
Partzsch then provides a simple taxonomy of legitimacy, distinguishing between an input-oriented perspective (authority of the people) and an output-oriented version (authority for the people). Ideally legitimacy should be based on both democratic norms (input) and equitable performance (output legitimacy), the latter an area of now general and intense development activity as donors struggle to prove to tax payers that their funds have achieved concrete results.
Private governance, says Partzsch, amounts to a new relationship between state, market and society. Its legitimacy rests solely on outputs, which are arrived at through consensus to solve perceived problems (e.g. to end rainforest clearance for oil palm estates). Such pragmatic solutions however are only weakly legitimate because of the lack of democratic norms, which actors try to solve by the inclusion of stakeholder groups that in effect, substitute for elected groups. The problem comes, of course, in how the stakeholder groups are defined and selected; this is a central challenge for legitimacy of private governance and previous studies (e.g. Busch 20006) demonstrate the power asymmetries that arise between retail companies and the rest of the supply chain. These stakeholder representatives participate through vastly more informal structures than is the case with democratic institutions.
Partzsch looks at two certification processes; one privately initiated (Roundtable On Sustainable Palm Oil, RSPO7) and one public (the Cramer Commission8). The mission of both of these entities is to contribute to solving specific problems, such as the environmental externalities of production, i.e. a results-oriented focus that hopes to gain legitimacy if the outputs serve the common welfare. With these antecedents, Partzsch introduces three conditions that are needed to establish legitimacy which she illustrates with the RSPO and Cramer Commission cases:
- De facto legitimacy: if output-oriented entities are effective at solving problems such as water pollution, land degradation etc. they are considered ‘de facto’ legitimate. Partzsch finds that both RSPO and Cramer are highly output oriented on required actions, e.g. the ending of deforestation. However there is no general consensus on what makes biofuel production sustainable e.g. on GMOs and indirect land use effects, where both entities have failed to agree on a position. Partzsch therefore finds that without agreement on outputs, neither initiative currently passes this legitimacy test.
- Legitimacy through stakeholder inclusion: the Cramer Commission emphasizes balanced representation of business and civil society groups, whereas the RSPO faces strong opposition from several groups. Both initiatives however fail to ensure adequate stakeholder participation from affected developing countries hence they can only claim at best to be partially legitimate according to this criterion. A recent paper by Laurence et al.9 agrees: ‘[RSPO] should be restructured to give more weight and decision-making power to environmental organizations and experts.’ Yet another recent paper (Paoli et al.10) makes a range of related suggestions: 1) improve corporate governance of plantation companies to translate boardroom CSR decisions into conservation actions on the ground; 2) push RSPO member processors, traders, manufacturers, and retailers to share the cost burden of implementing sustainability, (3) strengthen NGO partnerships with companies to provide the social and environmental expertise companies require but still lack, 4) create a more supportive regulatory structure in producer countries to implement sustainability.
- Control and accountability: the RSPO has assigned responsibility to its General Assembly and Executive Board, which includes a grievance panel to handle complaints. However these mechanisms are ‘private’ in the sense that there is no enforcement guarantee. Likewise the Cramer Commission criteria do not stem from the Netherlands’ legislature so there is also no legal accountability. Partzsch points out that the allocation of subsidies will depend on certification in the near future, so it is essential that modalities for control and accountability need to be established in order to guarantee that the political output serves the common good. A major challenge therefore is to integrate actors from developing countries including diverse and adverse civil society groups; private authority by the North is increasingly unlikely to be accepted by people in the South.
In France too, the various doubts raised by palm oil as a biofuel have surfaced, this time in the public science sector and has led to a review of the ethics of biofuels by the Joint Ethics Committee of INRA (Institut national de la recherche agronomique) and CIRAD (Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement).11
For years explain the authors, researchers in these two institutes have concentrated on such goals as increasing productivity and improving food security in a highly mission-oriented sense. Now however the diverse implications of biofuel research are revealing difficulties in this approach as different competing research issues arise. The very fact that this Committee is now considering this problem suggests that there must have been some considerable debate already within these public French institutions, something that is unlikely to come as a surprise to scientists in many other institutions.
The Committee refers to Max Weber’s interpretation of social action that distinguishes between instrumental rationality, related to the expectations about the behaviour of others, which are effectively oriented to attain rational ends, and value-oriented (axiological) actions, which are undertaken for intrinsic ethical, aesthetic, religious or other motives. These distinctions are somewhat similar to Partzsch’s categories of output- and input-orientated action.
Public-funded scientists therefore find themselves in a quandary says the Committee, with an unusual hybridization between scientific and economic rationality that makes them now a full partner in the 'knowledge economy.’ Scientists may try to stick to what they know but increasingly more is expected of them. The fear is that in the process scientific and commercial institutions come to resemble each other more closely. This is the subject of ‘new institutionalism’ theory (e.g. Scott 200112) that deals with the way institutions interact and how they affect society. It explains why so many businesses end up having the same organizational structure even though they evolved in different ways, and how institutions shape the behaviour of individual members.
The Committee suggests that a public research institution should not just be required to take the modern neo-liberal stance, but also to theorize and justify it. If not, public research activities could be reduced to an industry or service like any other. They quote Derrida and Pierre Veltz that the university must be ‘unconditional’ and by so doing, they clearly regard public sector scientists as more akin to their university colleagues than those in industry. Hence ‘freedom of questioning’ must be guaranteed and the Committee recommend revising the meaning of mission-oriented research and make specific recommendations on how to deal with ethical questions related to biofuels research. This will mean that when formulating research, scientists must question not only its scientific merit, but also its demands and social expectations. This will require interdisciplinary work with researchers in the humanities (legal, sociological and philosophical), to help scientists formulate and express the ethical problems they face.
Probably many who have worked on biofuels have felt troubled by the global implications that are now increasingly apparent, so it is encouraging to see the kind of deliberations outlined above now taking place, with the various authors deploying arguments by Kant, Rousseau, Weber and others in their attempts to grapple with these difficult issues. The role of the various actors, scientists, civil society and business is now indeed complex with the borders between them becoming very blurred, all perpetually seeking funding whilst needing to justify every action. None of the approaches reviewed here however offer easy solutions and it is clear that much more needs to be done to develop rational and broadly acceptable approaches to the development of biofuels.
Somehow too, there is a need to add a political dimension to this debate. What has happened is surely linked to the remarkable changes in global governance that have been occurring over the past two decades, something the late Konrad von Moltke was concerned with:13
“We are witnessing an extraordinary transformation of international governance linked to the processes of globalisation…[…]… not only governments make rules in international society, there are also private rule makers, there always have been private rule makers - but the balance between government rule making and private rule making is very much in flux and the ultimate challenge that we are facing is how to generate public goods from private markets.“
It is perhaps unfortunate and even ironic that the biofuel era has arrived during the full flood of globalisation, with its concomitant loosening of national government controls. Globalisation however has not led to serviceable and scalable global norms, which seem to be especially required now for biofuels, so implicated as they are in indirect land use change and so bound up with global CO2 emissions. Instead we seem now to be in a period of weak government and lack of leadership just at a time when, for biofuels and much else besides, strong, concerted and global guidance is required.
Dr. Peter Baker, CABI
- SwissInfo (2007) UN rapporteur calls for biofuel moratorium. [Online]
- Nuffield Council on Bioethics (2011) Biofuels: Ethical Issues 226pp.
- Buyx, A. & Tait, J. (2011) Ethical Framework for Biofuels. Science. 332: 540-541.
- Hart Energy Consulting & CABI (2010) Land Use Change: Science and Policy Review. 53pp.
- Partzsch, L. (2011) The legitimacy of biofuel certification. Agriculture and Human Values. 28: 413-425.
- Busch, L. (2000) The moral economy of grades and standards. Journal of Rural Studies. 16: 273–283.
- Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil
- Projectgroep Duurzame productie van biomassa (2006) Criteria voor duurzame biomassa productie. 40pp.
- Laurance, W.F., Koh, L.P., Butler, R., Sodhi, N.S., Bradshaw, C.J., Neidel, J.D., Consunji, H. & Mateo Vega, J. (2010) Improving the performance of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil for nature conservation. Conservation Biology. 24: 377–381.
- Paoli, G.D., Yaap, B., Wells, P.L. & Sileuw, A. (2010) CSR, Oil Palm and the RSPO: Translating boardroom philosophy into conservation action on the ground Tropical Conservation Science. 3:438-446.
- De Lattre-Gasquet, M., Vermersch, D., Bursztyn, M. & Duée, P.H. (2010) Quelles questions éthiques posent la production de palmier à huile et la recherche sur les biocarburants? Oléagineux Corps Gras Lipides. 17: 375-384.
- Scott, R. ( 2001) Institutions and Organizations. 2nd ed. Sage Publications, London. 255pp
- UNCTAD/IISD multi-stakeholder meeting: “Sustainability in the Coffee Sector: Exploring Opportunities for International Cooperation—Assessment and Implementation”. Palais des Nations, UNCTAD - Geneva Geneva 8-9th December, 2003.