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Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research, and Medicine; Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice; Institute of Medicine. The Nexus of Biofuels, Climate Change, and Human Health: Workshop Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2014 Apr 2.

Cover of The Nexus of Biofuels, Climate Change, and Human Health

The Nexus of Biofuels, Climate Change, and Human Health: Workshop Summary.

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11Closing Session

Frank Loy, roundtable chair, closed the workshop with some personal observations and set forth what he saw as the key points from the 2 days of the workshop. The first point to note is the huge impact that increased use of biofuels will have on food production. This will likely be the major focus of our society, Loy said.

Second, at the moment it takes a lot of biofuel to make a relatively little amount of energy. Both fossil fuels and biofuels emit greenhouse gas (although not equally), and the potential greenhouse gas savings from biofuels arises largely from the fact that the growing plants absorb carbon dioxide.

It seems set in stone that biofuels will make up an increasing percentage of transportation fuels. By 2050, it is expected that 20 percent of all transport fuels will be biofuels. Today, 40 percent of the corn production in the United States is used for biofuels, which obviously has a major impact both on corn producers and on consumers.

Given that the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from using biofuels is not great, it might seem that there would be a reversal of the trend toward more biofuels for transportation fuel, but Loy said he did not think that was going to happen.

There are two main drivers behind the push for biofuels. One is the urgency of climate change. The second one is political. “Once you have an established industry, there is great pressure not to meddle with it and not to reduce it, and not to put any handicaps in its way,” Loy said. “I think there is going to be biofuels production used for transport fuels for a long time to come.”

Main concerns raised during the workshop were the health issues related to biofuels. The use of biofuels raises some health issues, but they do not appear to be major. The more important health issues, Loy said, arise from their production, specifically, the increased use of pesticides and herbicides and fertilizers in an effort to boost production. Those chemicals make their way into the country’s streams and rivers, with potentially serious consequences for water quality. “These are health issues of a rather large magnitude,” he said.

Increased use of biofuels also has some adverse health implications for the quantity of water, although this is not as immediate a health issue as the effect on quality of the water. Biofuels use also has consequences for food prices, although these are probably more serious in developing countries than in the United States. As food gets more expensive, the tendency to choose foods that are cheap, rather than healthy, becomes very real, Loy said. And if nations are unable to deliver food at reasonable prices the stability of those nations is threatened. Ultimately, we face a very real possibility of a more destabilized world.

“The net result of all of this,” Loy said, “is that the essentials of life—food and water—are going to be under increased pressure from the equally intense pressure to address climate change. As health professionals, this group here has a substantial ability and responsibility to contribute thoughtfully to that discussion.”

Finally, Loy spoke of the urgency of health professionals addressing climate change. Referring to Lester Brown’s call for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, Loy said that clearly is not going to happen. Indeed, we will be lucky to meet the current, much more modest, 2020 goals by 2020.

There is not much pressure on our political leaders to address climate change aggressively, Loy said. “What we need to do in the United States, I think, is to broaden the number of Americans who care about that, who are somewhat knowledgeable about that, and who are not either agnostic or hostile to dealing with it.” A key element in our society that can help achieve such a change is the health community. And one way to do that, he said, is to get more health professionals involved.

“The reason the health community should get actively involved is not only because it is the right thing to do, but because Americans trust health professionals,” Loy said. They may not necessarily trust professors of public health, he noted, but they trust doctors and nurses and other health professionals with whom they come in contact.

“Our medical schools and our public health schools, it seems to me, are important places where the urgency of dealing with climate change, both in a personal and a political fashion, ought to be addressed,” Loy said.

Copyright 2014 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Bookshelf ID: NBK196440

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