Sustainable Development Dilemmas of Biofuels Research and Production: A Snapshot in South Africa

Sustainable Development Dilemmas of Biofuels Research and Production: A Snapshot in South Africa

Lwazi Ngubevana (Saline Water Conversion Corporation, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 18
DOI: 10.4018/IJEOE.2017040102
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Global warming due to greenhouse gas emissions and the growing energy needs of the world, has forced the world into thinking differently about energy sources and sustainable development, giving rise to the field of biofuels. Research and introduction of new technologies do, by their very nature, look to bring about positive change in society. Often though, changes result in unintended, unexpected, unforeseen, unforeseeable and unaddressed consequences. It often becomes the role of ethics protocols to militate against these negative consequences. In trying to establish the levels of awareness among South African researchers and producers of biofuels, to the sustainable development dilemmas brought about by their work; the “Five Capitals Framework” and a research ethics protocol, research was carried out at three South African businesses, generating data from interviews and collaborating with data from company publications. The study concluded that industry was indeed aware of the dilemmas that face their industry albeit that it was not in the context of a defined necessary framework.
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The imminent threat of global warming due to greenhouse gas emissions, has forced the world into thinking differently about our sources of energy and sustainable development, giving rise to the field of biofuels. In an attempt to slow the rate of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, South Africa has followed in the footsteps of countries such as Brazil in engaging in an aggressive strategy for biofuels production and research. South Africa’s industrial biofuels strategy aims to achieve a penetration level of 2% of biofuels in the national energy supply (400 million litres per annum) by 2013 (Department of Minerals and Energy, 2007).

These types of fuels have however recently taken centre stage in worldwide debate as both a solution to problems and as a creator of problems (the unintended consequences). This debate is centred on the premise that “although these fuels have shown promise as a substitute for fossil fuels as the raw material for transportation fuels, they have their pitfalls especially if produced at a scale large enough to replace a significant proportion of the world’s use of petroleum” (Gardner & Tyner, 2007). Several ethical issues, such as food security, indigenous people with insecure titles to their land losing their land, reduction in biodiversity, etc. have been raised in the use of biofuels (Eide, 2008). Jordaan (2007); Buyx and Tait (2011); and Tait (2011) also agree that “many biofuels policies fail to take consideration of important ethical principles, such as protecting human rights, environmental sustainability, climate change mitigation, just reward, and equitable distribution of costs and benefits.”

This particular view on ethics around biofuels production however has its detractors such as Thompson (2012), who argues that to blame a spike in global food prices on the growth of the United States’ corn ethanol industry is unwarranted.

It is evident that there are varying views on this issue and in order to establish an adequate ethics foundation for biofuels, it is important that scholars, business and society looks at a framework that most will agree on, such as sustainable development, as envisaged by Brundtland (1987b).

Stacey and Stacey (2012) proposed a research ethics protocol using the five capitals framework, based on the twelve features of sustainable societies. After examining the literature regarding the dilemmas facing the biofuels industry, it was decided that a study would be carried out on the application of this ethics protocol to biofuels production and research in South Africa. This study was aimed at assessing the level of awareness among local entrepreneurs and researchers, of the dominant ethical issues and assessing the role that research ethics protocols play in the biofuels industry in South Africa.

Major Contributions

This paper seeks to contribute to the knowledge body, an analysis of the current situation in South Africa and point out a possible way forward. A literature survey could not find a significant number of studies that look at the ethical conflicts and unintended consequences of our large financial and resource investment into biofuels research in South Africa. This was despite the fact that South Africa has already suffered the unintended consequences of policy decisions informed by what can be termed unethical research, such as the HIV/AIDS debacle. The proponents of this research did not consider that their publications would ultimately government policy and approach, leading to dire consequences.

Holt (1997), Jordaan (2007), Wiesner and Tonti (2009), Buyx and Tait (2011), Mortimer (2011), Gomiero, Paoletti, and David Pimentel (2010) and many others, have studied the ethical implications and sustainable dilemmas of biofuels across the world, but there is still no clear ethical guideline in South Africa that speak directly to the South African context, on the understanding of the impact of biofuels production and research, the unintended consequences of this work and how companies should communicate the benefits of their products.

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