Biofuels : ethical aspects

A.J.K. Pols, A. Spahn

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterAcademic


Oil is one of the drivers of Western industrial societies. Our pattern and (increasing) quantity of oil consumption, however, is becoming more and more problematic for a number of reasons. First, oil and other fossil fuel stocks are finite and will at some point run out or become prohibitively costly to mine, both in economic and in environmental terms. Second, burning fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, thereby contributing to global climate change. Third, dependence on oil implies dependence on oil-producing countries – countries that might not always be politically stable or well disposed toward oil-importing countries and thus threaten the importing countries’ energy security (Landeweerd et al. 2009). Biofuels have been hailed as a replacement that had the potential to address all those problems. First, biofuels are made from plants or algae ("fuel crops") that can be cultivated indefinitely, rather than coming from a limited stock. Second, biofuels were initially considered to be "carbon neutral," where the amount of carbon emitted during combustion would be the same as the amount stored in the plant during growth, leading to a net carbon emission of zero (however, see section "Land Use"). Third, fuel crops can be grown anywhere, though conditions in the (sub)tropics favor certain kinds of crops such as oil palms, which means that it lessens dependence on oil-producing countries. In addition, two arguments are often mentioned in favor of using biofuels rather than alternative energy sources for the transport sector: First, biofuels can be blended with fossil fuels and thus can utilize our existing infrastructure, whereas the switch to electric cars or a hydrogen economy would require massive infrastructural changes. Second, heavy-duty vehicles such as airplanes cannot as yet be powered by fuel cells or batteries but could be powered by biofuels (Nuffield Council on Bioethics 2011, 19, hereafter the NCB). In practice, however, many types of biofuels have not lived up to their promises or even exacerbated problems and created normative, practical, and political challenges besides. This entry aims to give an overview of ethical issues of biofuels and their treatment in the literature. In particular, after giving an introduction on what biofuels are, this entry presents an overview of ethical challenges on two levels: the practical and policy level, where concrete ethical problems arise and are addressed by governments and advisory and regulatory bodies, and the theoretical level, where the choice of theoretical framework influences which problems and possible solutions are highlighted. Issues related to GM agriculture and intellectual property are not addressed here as those topics are covered elsewhere.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEncyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics
EditorsPaul B. Thompson, David M. Kaplan
Place of PublicationDordrecht
Number of pages8
ISBN (Print)978-94-007-0929-4
Publication statusPublished - 2014


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