Current UK and European policies on biofuels encourage unethical practices, says a report by the Nuffield Council.
Policies such as the European Renewable Energy Directive are particularly weak when it comes to protecting the environment and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the 'Biofuels: ethical issues' report says.
Few incentives exist for the development of new biofuel technologies that could help avoid these problems, it adds.
"Biofuels are one of the only renewable alternatives we have for transport fuels such as petrol and diesel, but current policies and targets that encourage their uptake have backfired badly," said Professor Joyce Tait, who led the inquiry.
"The rapid expansion of biofuels production in the developing world has led to problems such as deforestation and the displacement of indigenous people.
"We want a more sophisticated strategy that considers the wider consequences of biofuel production."
"Researchers are developing new types of biofuels that need less land, produce fewer greenhouse gases and do not compete with food, but commercial-scale production is many years away," said Professor Ottoline Leyser, one of the authors of the report.
"The government should do more to encourage research into these more ethical types of biofuels."
In its report Biofuels: ethical issues, the Nuffield Council recommends that there should be a set of overarching ethical conditions for all biofuels produced in and imported into Europe, including:
- biofuels development should not be at the expense of human rights
- biofuels should be environmentally sustainable
- biofuels should contribute to a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions
- biofuels should adhere to fair trade principles
- biofuels should be distributed in an equitable way
"These ethical conditions should be enforced through a certification scheme," said Professor Tait. "This would create a market for environmentally sustainable and ‘human rights friendly’ biofuels."
"Existing biofuels policy is failing - we can set the standard in Europe and encourage the rest of the world to follow suit."
Download the report Biofuels: ethical issues