Ethical Dimensions of Renewable Energy and Sustainability Systems

Broader Impacts Example: U.S. Corn Ethanol


Broader Impacts Example: U.S. Corn Ethanol

Corn stalks in rows
Figure 4.2: Corn Field
Credit: Todd Trapani from Pexel licensed by CC0

Broader Social and Environmental Impacts (EDSR Category 2) of U.S. Corn Ethanol

This is an example of the applying the Broader Social and Environmental Ethics Matrix (2b) to the case of U.S. Corn Ethanol production. This example attempts to find something for every subcategory here; however, some of these subcategories may not be relevant for all cases. For your own assignments, try to identify at least the most ethically relevant of the subcategories.

1. Broader Impacts (top categories)

  1. Advancing discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning

    Public education about biofuels requires the explanation of methods, benefits, impacts, and trade-offs in using the fuels. More public platforms to learn about biofuels ought to be made readily available. My suggestion would be to engage NASCAR, here in the U.S., and try to convince them to run their races only on biofuels, which their own team would need to "brew." This way, fans could likely be interested enough to learn about the various aspects of biofuels. (Of course, now the stock cars would be running the "moonshine" in their tanks instead of running it in their trunks.) Stock cars aside, biofuels are still the most significant form of energy consumed by 3/5 of the human populations. Biofuels are used, most significantly, in rudimentary cooking and heating applications throughout the world. While we can think about second and third generation biofuels, much of the world uses some form of rudimentary biofuel as part of their daily routine.

    Advancement of learning and understanding while promoting teaching ought to, first and foremost, consider the needs of those populations most dependent on biofuels for their daily survival. We ought to, as well, do better about educating "ourselves" about the needs of those groups (depending on more rudimentary biofuels) and educating those societies dependent on more industrialized forms of energy production and consumption about how their practices impact other's access to rudimentary biofuels. Corn biofuels are especially problematic, even under the most ideal of conditions. Corn biofuels require significant inputs of CO2 intensive fertilizer production and fresh water. (~100 gallons of water to grow a gallon of fuel.) Reaching out to communities that may be impacted by corn biofuels ought to learn the trade-offs that need to be made.

  2. Broaden participation of underrepresented groups, e.g., gender, disability, geographic, ethnicity, economic

    In conducting a stakeholder investigation, we can see many possible areas where underrepresentation of particular groups is likely to pose a significant ethical issue. Public participation in the decision-making process is essential to bringing to light the challenges and problems that the spectrum of groups may face, but without a specific process that gives voice and credence to minority interests, most minority perspectives would go unconsidered. Many environmental injustices are based on social and economic status. In terms of corn ethanol, a wide variety of farming communities could be impacted. As well, indirectly, those communities that consume corn as a main food staple could be impacted. Bringing together and voicing these various perspectives beforehand could lead to better, i.e., less impactful, decisions on the front end. At the very least, typically underrepresented communities ought not be negatively impacted by the cultivation and processing of corn for use as biofuels.

  3. Infrastructure for research and education examples: facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships

    In terms of corn based biofuels, research and education can be readily observed in action through agricultural extension programs, such as those at Penn State. International biofuels research networks have been established to support rapid knowledge and technology transfers. As well, there are industry specific organizations, such as aviation, that are seeking to understand the best way to integrate biofuels to meet their needs. Once a biofuel pathway is established, a commitment is implicitly made to maintain education and innovation.

  4. Dissemination and translation of results

    How well is research about the latest developments in biofuels being disseminated? If the latest research happens to demonstrate that corn based ethanol is neither sustainable nor all that economically viable? If the research ends up in academic journals, is it getting in front of the right audience? Are the results of the research being "translated" into terms that a lay audience may understand?

  5. Benefits to society

    Corn biofuels present a variety of economic benefits to the corn farmers, fertilizer producers, the seed industry, and others that would see economic gains from a move to corn ethanol. However, there are many significant problems with corn based biofuels, covered in other sections below.

2. Public Policy Implications

  1. Regulatory implications

    Regulatory support via farming and energy based subsidies for corn based biofuels can prove problematic for other biofuel strategies. Overall, regulations are going to be necessary if biofuels are to be adopted. Regulations will typically affect some aspect of the transport industry to change fuel standards such that a certain percentage of biofuels are mixed in with regular fossil based fuels. The airline industry in the U.S., for example, is committed to trying to achieve a 20% biodiesel mix for all short haul passenger flights. (This is near the maximum that the current generation of engine technology can take.) Corn based ethanol will likely be de-emphasized as a regulatory priority once cheaper and less land-use / water-use intensive processes become readily available.

  2. Application implications

    Adopting corn biofuels requires accepting certain application and infrastructure commitments that may not have been made explicit in the decision-making process about adoption. There are ethical implications to requiring secondary stakeholders to take on certain commitments, from car companies whose engines need to be able to accept the higher ethanol based fuels to the farmers who have to grow a corn in a way that requires buying into the "big agricultural" system or face not being competitive.

  3. Technology transfer and knowledge transfer

    When it comes to new and innovative methods for producing biofuels, is there an obligation to transfer those methods to other countries, particularly those most in need of energy development opportunities? On the other hand, is there also an obligation to make sure that any such technology being transferred is indeed appropriate for the location and context? For example, would it be a good idea to try to get countries where corn is the main food staple to also try to invest heavily in corn biofuels? If technology does get transferred (such as genetic technology of the corn, the fermenting and refining facilities, and the biochemistry of the catalysts), then is the appropriate knowledge and training also transferred so that local populations can run the corn ethanol systems?

  4. Research for decision-making

    What scientific, technical, and economic research on corn ethanol is being used to make decisions? Is the research produced by a company, by academic researchers, public/private partnerships, think-tanks, etc? Is the research being used appropriate to the decision-making context (climate, soil conditions, water resources, trained experts)?

  5. Evidence-based decision-making

    Is research being used at all when decisions are being made about corn ethanol pathways? Does the evidence about the viability of corn ethanol support the decisions being put forward? Is the evidence being used representative of all the research, or is the evidence being "cherry-picked" by those advocating a certain policy direction? (Think of the spectrum of lobbying interests here.)

3. Social Justice Issues

  1. Distributive justice: Allocation of benefits and burdens of an activity

    Corn ethanol presents significant distributive justice concerns in terms of land-use impacts, water resource impacts, and food vs. fuel considerations. For example, when the price of corn in the U.S. climbed rapidly due to a new regulatory emphasis on corn ethanol production, this directly affected the price of white corn which also went up quickly in Mexico, due to NAFTA regulations. As white corn is the main food staple for a large majority of the Mexican population, poorer populations were finding it difficult to purchase enough white corn for tortillas to feed themselves. This was also due to the fact that many Mexican farmers decided to grow yellow corn because they could get much more for the yellow corn on the North American market than they could for the white corn on the local market.

  2. Procedural justice: Enhancing participation and representation of groups and individuals in research decisions and outcomes

    Decisions get made through a process, but who gets included in that process? While there really is no perfect procedure that can take into account every single perspective when making a decision, there is an ethical obligation to identify the stakeholders (including the 'silent stakeholders') most likely to be impacted and include those voices in building consensus towards a decision. How inclusive of various stakeholder perspectives were the decisions that were made about supporting the adoption of corn ethanol in the U.S.? Were the decision-making procedures influenced mainly by Congressional lobbyists? Or, were there public hearings and attempts to survey public opinion before commitments were made?

  3. Intergenerational justice: Duties of present generations not to pursue policies or practices that create benefits for themselves but impose costs on future generations

    How far along in duration does the consideration of impacts extend? Selecting and committing to corn ethanol would not only set up commitments for current populations, but also for future generations. Does corn ethanol provide enough CO2 reductions to improve climatic conditions for future generations, or are there other biofuels options that could address these needs better?

  4. Retributive justice: Are those harmed by actions being properly compensated, and/or are those committing ethical infractions being properly reprimanded for their actions (does the punishment fit the crime)?

    Two forms of retributive justice can be considered in the context of corn ethanol. First, the production of corn ethanol did make it difficult for some families to be able to afford enough of their staple food. Market interventions by the president allowed for subsidies of white corn production, even though it went against NAFTA free trade agreements. Second, do companies in the corn ethanol conduct certain practices that go against regulations? Emissions can come at a variety of points throughout the production process. Are those industrial firms correctly reporting all emissions? If not, and they get caught, are they being punished at a rate high enough to discourage further emissions?

4. Transformations in Economy and Society

  1. Transformations in daily function

    For the most part, nothing really changes for those who use liquid fuels for transportation. Corn ethanol is appealing to many because there is so little difference to the end user between it and what they already use. People may seek out corn ethanol on a preferential basis, but there are no significant transformations in how business is done. Those that may be most impacted on a day to day basis are the farmers that are most likely to be impacted by a significant shift to corn based biofuels.

  2. Transforming public understanding and education

    Corn biofuels do not readily present a different and evolutionary take on energy systems that would take us away from dangerous levels of emissions. Other biofuels do this much better, such as large biodigesters located in a densely populated area which could significantly improve public understanding and appreciation of turning waste into energy while at the same time capturing the CO2 that would otherwise be emitted. Again, unless there was a radical public information campaign (such as NASCAR intentionally adopting corn ethanol as its fuel) corn ethanol does not present significant outreach opportunities that improve the chance of other more effective biofuels.

  3. Transformation of economic means of production

    Does corn ethanol present enough of an energy solution that it will likely change how we go about procuring and using energy? Based on the overall energy and CO2 payback of corn ethanol, it does not seem likely shifts would be coming to our energy economy. In fact, if you begin to look at longer-term trends in automobiles, you see that a shift to electric cars is relatively inevitable, depending primarily on a transformative shift in battery storage solutions. There will be a move away from liquid fuels for ground transportation purposes within the next decade. (Most urban transport in the U.S. runs on either electric or CNG.)

5. Risks and Precautions

  1. Definition and assessment of risk

    Corn ethanol presents a series of risks ranging from eutrification and other forms of pollution to local water sources and overuse of water resources, particularly where fossilized (non-replenished) water is being used for agricultural purposes in corn farming, such as in regions of the U.S. Southwest. Risks of continuing dependence on natural gas resources in the production of nitrogen fertilizers via the Haber process. Risks are also present in the politics and economics of GMO crops, where genetic content is transmitted via pollen to non-interested parties, and, to make matters worse, that pollen can produce seed that is genetically licensed, so is subject to copyright and intellectual property laws. Who identifies and assesses the risks presented by corn ethanol? Are those risks being taken seriously? Are the risk assessments being conducted by non-interested parties?

  2. Precautionary principle

    The principle essentially states that, in the face of uncertainty about outcomes, one must proceed with caution. For the most part, corn ethanol does not present many uncertain risks in its production and consumption. The risks of corn ethanol, as mentioned above, are relatively well known. This does not mean, however, that one should roll out a massive biofuels plan based on corn ethanol. Many uncertainties do remain, such as the long-term impacts of turning away from other biofuels pathways.

  3. Recognizing and tracking emerging risks

    For corn biofuels, an emerging risk would be increased problems due to water consumption. Further, climatologists are currently predicting a massive 1000-year drought coming for the West and Midwest, i.e., much of the corn belt. If all our "eggs" were put into the corn ethanol basket, such a drought would likely cripple that part of the energy economy. This is an emerging risk that requires our close attention now. This goes for all biofuels being grown as crops in that region.

While not entirely exhaustive, this represents a fairly thorough sketch of the wide variety of possible broader social and environmental impacts presented by corn ethanol pathways. Ideally, each of these issues would have a form of resolution that could be designed and planned for as part of a way to improve the outcomes of corn ethanol systems.