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Consequences of biomass use as renewable energy source on landscape function and sustainability

Proposed by Ralf-Uwe Syrbe, IALE-D executive committee, syrbe@iale.de

What is the problem?

The worldwide attention to climate change caused a multitude of CO2 reduction strategies even in the industrial countries. Since the potential of other renewable energy sources (solar, wind, water, geothermal) is limited, the use of biomass for energy production and especially for bio fuels has boomed. This accelerated growth results primarily from governments implementing tax breaks or legislation related to bio fuels. For instance, the US aspires in its Energy Policy Act to produce 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol by 2012. The existing ethanol refineries plus refineries under construction will affect nearly half of the U.S. The EU aims to have a share of 20 % renewable energy by 2020. This can only be achieved by increasing biomass production by 70 %, and this level of production will have signficant impacts to European landscapes and associated functions.

These trends will strongly affect the function and structure of landscapes worldwide. They will likely cause signficant changes in ecosystem services and subsequently the quality of life for many societies. But the impacts on the developing countries may be even more severe. In these areas where there is competition between food and biomass production, biomass production for fuels tends to win out. Moreover, the sustainable water supply is a crucial social and ecological problem in several parts of the developing world. The production of palm oil in Sri Lanka for instance consumes about 3500 l of water per 1l of oil.

The production of bio diesel and palm oil is profitable especially if it is connected with an exploitation of natural woods. By means of deforestation and wildfire, as well as the degradation of soils (esp. peat) with a mobilization of carbon reservoirs, bio fuel areas will emit more greenhouse gases than they will sequester. According to the FAO, 25 to 30 % of all greenhouse gases result from deforestation and wildfire. A great many of them are connected with land reclamations or conversions.

Challenges to the science of landscape ecology:

The economic potential of bio fuel demand entails an increase of land use intensity, including increased amounts of fertilizers and of pesticides and use of water. Therefore, comprehensive life cycle analyses (LCA) must clarify the real greenhouse gas balance and environmental costs. These LCA have to include all effects on the environment to capture landscape changes and to consider also social aspects. Only sustainably produced biomass will help us manage problems concerning climate change. Thus, management for biomass production should be based on integrated landscape studies. The optimisation aims should include positive greenhouse gas balance, maintenance of carbon sinks, a safe food supply, protection of biodiversity, water quality, soil, air quality, and economic and cultural growth and sustainability. Achieving this level of optimisation will be a continuous challenge, but landscape ecology holds great potential to achieve this goal because of the integrative nature of the science.

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Volume 35 no. 4, December 2017