Biofuels - An approach from a distributive justice perspective

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

22 Pages, Grade: 1,0

Free online reading


1. Introduction

2. Context
2.1. Geopolitics of a fossil-based society
2.2. Distributive Justice

3. Biofuels: myth or reality
3.1. Basics
3.2. An answer to the crisis?
3.2.1. The hopes
3.2.2. The “dark side”

4. The ethical challenges of biofuels
4.1. Biofuels and power f2
4.2. Biofuels and distributive justice f2

5. Toward remedies which are not worse than the disease

6. Bibliography

List of Annexes

Annex Nr. 1: Graph Nr. 1: Oil and conflicts

Annex Nr. 1: Graph Nr. 2: World consumption of primary energy sources

Annex Nr. 2. Graph Nr. 3: The main transnational corporation

Annex Nr. 2. Graph Nr. 4: Global oil production in Billion. Barrel /Year

1. Introduction

Climate change has become a major issue in the media and in everyday conversation. The outcomes of the last report of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published in 2007 and the analysis of the economist Nicolas Stern published in 2006 about the relationship between economic development and climate change are alarming: the concentration of Greenhouse gases (GHG) in our atmosphere is so high that we must not only continue orienting our efforts to prevent and reduce the climate change but also prepare ourselves to face the consequences that are now unavoidable. There is a common agreement that the emissions generated by the systematic use of fossil resources (overall petroleum, gas, and coal) are the main protagonist of this horror story. The problem is that one of these resources, oil, is a finite resource which is considered to be “the lifeblood on which the global economy depends” (Oxfam 2008: 5).That is, the main cause of the current climate crisis is simultaneously a factor that awakens massive concerns given its imminent depletion (BUND et al. 2008: 44).

In light of this situation, the biofuels produced from biomass of renewable resources are presented as the answer to the crises above mentioned. From the viewpoint of the promoters, they contribute to stopping the GHG emissions given their supposed GHG neutrality and additionally allow for the reduction on the dependency of fossil fuels: “Biofuels are important because they tackle two of the most difficult challenges we face in energy policy […] security of energy supply […] and climate change”1. In addition, the projects related to production and trade with biofuels are considered to be a promissory alternative to promote the economic development and to alleviate poverty (Raswant et al. 2008: 1-2).

It is not surprising, therefore, that diverse political and economical actors are so committed to the massive promotion of the production and global trade of biofuels. Projects in the framework of the international development cooperation, national and international regulations and the formulation of blend quotes are only some examples. Particularly the developing countries are considered to be “high potentials” because of their favorable climatic conditions which fulfill the requirements of the global industrial expansion of energy crops. However, after some time the “dark side” of the current biofuels policy has been more evident: apart from the statements that deny biofuels as an alternative to face the climate and energy crises (Oxfam 2008: 5), social tensions with regard to the access and use of land, environmental conflicts, violent displacement and other human rights violations are a source of frequent denunciation (Fritz 2008a: 5). One of the most widespread negative effects is the impact of the current biofuels policy on food security. Diverse studies (WBGU 2008; Diefenbacher 2008; Oxfam 2008) share the conclusion that the great demand for crops for the production of biofuels has been contributing to the food price fluctuations and the reduction of the food supply.

However, the euphoria of the biosprit is far from being reduced. In spite of the fact that many detractors have reached the attention of political actors, today one hears about biofuels of second generation and sustainability standards, which in the eyes of the detractors mirrors the perpetuation of a profitable business with the same or worse negative consequences (Fritz 2008c: 7).

This paper aims to shed some light on the current debate about biofuels as an answer to the global climate and energy crisis from a distributive justice perspective. I will particularly carry out my assessment by focusing on the processes and outcomes in order to get an answer to the question of how fair the current promotion of this renewable fuel is.

In this document I suggest that the debate over biofuels lies in the traditional ethical concerns of capitalistic fossilism; given that biofuels are the renewable energy source that better fit the conditions posed by the current fossil-based economic system: capitalism. In other words, they allow for the maintenance of a “green discourse” while oil can still be consumed. The current benefits and burdens associated with the production and global trade with biofuels are not fairly distributed among the different stakeholders.

The paper is outlined as follows: in the first part I will present a theoretical review as a context. Here I will provide an overview on the current climate and energy crisis paying particular attention to the theoretical approach of Elmar Altvater. Then I will review basic elements of the theory of the distributive justice. In the second part I will describe the debate over biofuels by presenting the main arguments of its detractors and supporters. Then in the third part I will concentrate on the analysis of the situation from a distributive justice perspective. Finally I will present my conclusion where I expect to validate my main argument presented above.

2. Context

In this part I will review some concepts which serve as the context for the debate about biofuels.

2.1. Geopolitics of a fossil-based society

Since there are no doubts about the responsibility of the fossil energy sources (mainly oil, gas and coal) to the increase of the GHG and the subsequent climate change, in this part I will focus on describing the relationship that exists between the current capitalistic system of production and distribution and the fossil energy sources. According to Elmar Altvater (2005: 28, 78-85), the production and reproduction of modern societies are highly determined and dependent on the use of fossil resources. Particularly, the author suggests that the current capitalistic system would have failed if the transition to the fossilistic energy system (fossilism) had not taken place. The use of the fossil energy allowed for a quantum leap toward the efficiency of productive forces, as this kind of energy is ideal for the capitalistic growth. In simpler words, the link between capitalism and fossilism cannot be severed. Specifically, Altvater states that fossil energy compared with other energy sources (e.g. wind power, hydro power) offers the capitalistic way of production certain advantages, taking into account that it can be used almost without geographical or temporal restriction. The fossil energy resources do not depend on time because they are easy to be stored and their use is not subordinated to natural conditions (e.g. sunlight, wind power, etc), season or the hour of the day. Overall these kinds of energy resources are considered ideal because they allow the decentralization and concentration of certain economic processes and the concentration of political power.

As the fossil resources reserves are unequally distributed around the world and the big consumption centers often do not coincide with their geographical location (González et al. 2008: 21), certain political actors (e.g. states, private companies) can make decisions about their production, trade and appropriation worldwide. In fact, these decisions can be made through violent means and spark tensions on a local, regional, and international level. (Altvater 2005: 163-171). 24 of the 49 main oil producer countries are scenarios of conflicts and in 38 of them human rights violations are committed (González et al. 2008: 21)2. Given that fossil fuels represent 81% of the world primary energy3 and 66% of the global electric generation (González et al. 2008: 17,19); it is not surprising that the main corporations in the world (state and private) are those which control the oil reserves (87% state oil companies and 13% private oil companies) (González et al. 2008: 17,19)4.

Taking into account this panorama which mirrors the current production, distribution and consumption patterns which in turn are cultural mainstreamed (Altvater 2005: 78-85), it is not surprising that any fluctuation in the main fossil energy sources (oil and gas) can be considered to be a global crisis (BUND et al. 2008: 42). The exploitation rates of the fossil resources are higher than the regeneration rates. As a consequence, half of the approximate 100 oil producing countries have already reached their maximal production (“peak oil”) (BUND et al. 2008: 43)5. According to Altvater (2005: 141-171), the availability of energy resources (energy security) has been included as a priority in the foreign policy of the main world economies. This is put into practice through diverse geostrategic movements in order to assure the energy provision which allows the normal operation of the current economical, political and social dynamics.

In light of the global energy crisis, alternative energy sources (renewables) continue to be a hope. Nevertheless, their promotion and development are still now marginal if compared with the global consumption of fossil energy. Engelhard (2007: 155) attributes this situation to their high accrual and investment costs. Yet it would be worth the effort to consider if this situation can be better explained considering the central arguments of Altvater regarding the relationship between capitalism and fossilism.

2.2. Distributive Justice

The fair allocation of resources among diverse members is the main concern of distributive justice. According to Maiese (2003:1), “fair allocation typically takes into account the total amount of goods to be distributed, the distributing procedure, and the pattern of distribution that result”. The “fair share” is defined by principles such as equality, equity and need. If equality is considered the priority principle, goods will be distributed equally among all persons. “However, due to differences in the level of need, this will not result in an equal outcome” (Maiese 2003: 1). This kind of distribution provides people a sense of full-fledged membership. If the criteria of equity determine who gets what, goods will be distributed in proportion to the individuals´ contribution. In this sense it is easy to associate this type of distribution with a system (political and economical) that rewards productivity assuming that all actors have the same opportunity to compete. Another possibility is to proceed according to the principle of need. Thus, “those who need more of a benefit or resource will receive more […] assuring that everyone´s basic and essential needs are met” (Maiese 2003: 1-2). The author stresses the fact that each political and economic system is characterized according to the principle which is adopted as the central one.

Other aspects which the theoretical development of the distributive justice has dealt with are the role of the outcome and process. What makes a distribution fair? The outcome or the rules followed in determining that distribution? In this regard John Rawls and Robert Nozick contribute as follows:

“In his Theory of Justice, John Rawls claims that one's place of birth, social status, and family influences are matters of luck that should not unduly influence the amount of benefits we receive in life. He maintains that the job of distributive justice is to limit the influence of luck so that goods might be distributed more fairly and to everyone's advantage. Robert Nozick, on the other hand, believes that distributive justice is a matter of setting down rules that individuals should follow in acquiring and transferring resources and benefits. The aim of distributive justice is not to achieve any particular outcome of distribution, but rather to ensure a fair process of exchange” (Maiese 2003: 2).

Specifically, the distributive justice theory applied to the subject of climate change has been often associated with the question of how to allocate the cost of mitigation and adaptation among countries (Soltau 2008: 116-117). Henry Shue (qtd in Soltau 2008: 117) for instance suggests that the following questions will lead to a reflection about the distributive fairness in the context of the climate change: “What is a fair allocation of the costs of preventing the global warming that is still avoidable? […]What is a fair allocation of the costs of coping with the social consequences of global warming that will in fact not be avoided?

Having the previous question and the theoretical contribution of Rawls and Nozik as a point of reference, I will consider the outcomes as relevant as the process when dealing with the research question.


1„ Andris Piebalgs, European Energy Commissioner, keynote speech at the International Biofuels Conference, Brussels, 5 July 2007 (qtd in Oxfam 2008: 6)

2 See annex Nr. f. Graph Nr. f: Oil and conflicts

3 See annex Nr. f. Graph Nr. 2: World consumption of primary energy sources

4 See annex Nr. 2. Graph Nr. 3: The main transnational corporation

5 See annex Nr. 2. Graph Nr. 4: Global oil production in Billion. Barrel ƒYear

22 of 22 pages


Biofuels - An approach from a distributive justice perspective
Otto-von-Guericke-University Magdeburg  (Institut für Politikwissenschaft)
International Ethics - Concepts, Theories and Cases
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
722 KB
Biofuels, Distributive Justice, Menschenrechte, Human Rights, Klimawandel, Climate Change, Energie
Quote paper
Andrés Home (Author), 2009, Biofuels - An approach from a distributive justice perspective, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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