Land is a key factor in the production of bioenergy resources, and its availability varies among and within regions and countries. Extensive establishment of energy plantations may place limits on the availability of land for producing food and as a result, food security is a concern for some countries – particularly those with limited land resources and high populations.
Recent studies have shown that although significant global reserves of potential cropland exist, predictions for population growth and land-use competition suggest that reserves are not well distributed in relation to future demand. For example, some Asian countries with high populations appear to have no, or very limited, land available for bioenergy production (Risø, 2003).
In heavily populated Asian countries, however, agroforestry, the use of agricultural and forest wastes and efficient energy conversion technologies could provide significant amounts of bioenergy. Latin America, much of Africa and some forest-rich countries in Asia have large areas that could potentially be turned over to biomass production. Biodiversity is, however, threatened when large-scale monocultures are grown for energy purposes, even when non-forest land is used. The loss of pastoral lifestyles associated with shrinking grasslands, and the loss of feed production for domestic and wild herbivores on these lands, could also have significant negative economic and social impacts (UN-Energy, 2007).
In many developing countries, extensive degraded lands are being considered for expansion of bioenergy plantations. India, for example, is focusing on 63 million hectares classified as wasteland. They estimate that 40 million hectares are suitable for cultivating oil-bearing plants (Prasad, 2007). The planting of trees or other energy crops in such areas has been suggested as a way to reduce erosion, restore ecosystems, regulate water flows and provide shelter and protection to communities and to agricultural lands (Risø, 2003). To realize such benefits, however, the expansion of biofuel production will need to be accompanied by clear and well enforced land-use regulations, particularly in countries with tropical forests at risk of conversion to other land-uses (Worldwatch Institute, 2007).
There has been resistance to agrofuel projects because of the risks and potential conflicts they pose. In Uganda, for example, the public reacted negatively when the government granted a permit to a company to exploit the Mabira forests for planting sugar cane for agrofuels. Similar reactions to agrofuel projects have also been reported in Ghana and South Africa (GRAIN, 2007).
Forests in several countries have been replaced by crops intended to produce biofuels and this trend could accelerate if there are large increases in the demand for biofuels and bioenergy in general. The dynamics could change dramatically, however, if woody biomass becomes the biofuel feedstock of choice, and a future in which forests threaten farmland, rather than the opposite may be possible.
To ensure that sufficient cropland is available to produce food at affordable prices and to avoid loss of valuable habitats, it is imperative that land-use planning and monitoring be considered in bioenergy strategies. Possible scenarios for liquid biofuel development are outlined in Box 8 together with their likely impacts.
Potential negative environmental impacts related to large-scale increases in forest and bioenergy plantations include reduced soil fertility, soil erosion and increased water use. Intensive cultivation increases and concentrates water consumption, and in many countries, water is an increasingly scarce resource. Some agrofuel crops consume large quantities of water. In March 2006, the International Water Management Institute issued a report warning that the rush for liquid biofuels could worsen the water crisis in some countries. For example, in China and India where water resources are scarce, a large share of agrofuel crop production depends on irrigation (GRAIN, 2007). This can reduce the water resources for food crops and have impacts on food security. Though, these impacts can be mitigated through good land-use planning and responsible management (FAO, 2006b).
There is also concern about an increase in air pollution if biomass combustion increases (WHO, 2006). In particular, wood combustion in installations with insufficient filters or incomplete combustion releases fine particulates that pose a health hazard. Some countries have burning device standards, but these may be compromised by low fuel quality (e.g. wet wood) and ineffective burning techniques. As there are major consequences to increased biomass combustion, many of which are interlinked, a holistic approach is necessary when setting targets and making policies to combat climate change (UNECE/FAO, 2007). Valuable time and effort is also devoted to fuel collection rather than more profitable pursuits and for these reasons the United Nations Millennium Project has set a goal of halving the number of households using traditional biomass for cooking by 2015.
With increasing demands on land from first-generation liquid biofuel development, pressure on forests is likely to increase around the world. In many cases, the opportunity costs will be too high to prevent conversion of forests to the economically attractive land-uses that will emerge if bioenergy development continues its recent trajectory. Forest clearance will result where measures to protect and sustainably manage forests are ineffective or not upheld.
Loss of forest area will lead to carbon release and biodiversity losses. Ownership and use rights may also be affected where land is under traditional ownership or rights are not fully recognized. Soybean, sugar cane and oil-palm have all been associated with deforestation, which has contributed significantly to greenhouse gas emissions in countries where production of these crops has proliferated (GRAIN, 2007).
Recent studies have suggested that economic incentives to produce biofuels increasingly cause conversion of forest or grasslands, thereby releasing carbon dioxide stored in plants and soils through decomposition or fires (Searchinger et al., 2008). The significance of taking land-use change into carbon calculations for bioenergy development cannot be ignored. It has been estimated, for example, that if secondary forest is replaced with sustainably produced oil-palm, it will take 50–100 years to recapture lost carbon (Butler, 2007b).
Large areas of rainforest have been and are being cleared to make room for oil-palm plantations. The world’s most significant areas of oil-palm plantation are in Indonesia and Malaysia. It has been estimated that approximately 17 to 27 percent of Indonesian deforestation may be explained by the establishment of oil-palm plantations, and in Malaysia the figure may be as high as 80 percent. In Indonesia, 3.6 million hectares of land are under oil-palm plantations and this figure is increasing by around 13 percent per year (FAO, 2007c). At the same time an average of 1.8 million hectares of forests are disappearing annually – equivalent to 2 percent of the national forest cover. This has not only caused large emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but has increased the threat to several endangered species (UNECE/FAO, 2007).
Carbon dioxide emissions are particularly immense when oil-palm plantations are established on drained peat lands and, according to a study by Hooijer et al. (2006), 27 percent of oil-palm plantations are located in such areas. Carbon dioxide emissions from drained peat lands in Indonesia include 1 400 mega tons from peat land fires and 600 mega tons from decomposition of drained peat lands. This is estimated to equal almost 8 percent of global emissions from fossil fuel burning, and places Indonesia in third place in terms of global carbon dioxide emissions after the United States and China (Hooijer et al., 2006). There is evidence that bioenergy products, including some destined for export, contribute to this trend.
For example, significant amounts of palm oil are used for biodiesel production, primarily for use in Europe (Carrere, 2001; Colchester et al., 2006).
An increase in bioenergy use in industrialized countries could have widespread effects around the world. Currently, this is most likely for easily transportable liquid biofuels. With the advent of commercially viable liquid cellulosic biofuels, nations with abundant forest resources may be tempted to increase supply of bioenergy feedstocks, resulting in forest loss where sustainable management principles are not followed.
Large areas of degraded forest are also likely targets for the expansion of bioenergy plantations. Although not in pristine condition, such forests still maintain high levels of biodiversity and large amounts of carbon and may also provide important safety nets for local people in terms of food and materials production. Whether such areas can be sustainably managed for multiple goods and services including bioenergy production remains to be seen, but recent trends do not incite confidence.
In 2007, the Chinese State Forestry Administration (SFA) announced an initiative to develop two Jatropha curcas plantation bases in Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces for biofuel production. The SFA has since announced its intention to devote more than 13 million hectares of forestland to biofuels expansion, and the Yunnan Provincial Forestry Department plans to develop 1.3 million hectares of plantations by 2015 with the aim of producing four million tonnes of bioethanol and 600 000 tonnes of biodiesel annually (Liu, 2007). It is claimed that these plantings will be carried out on degraded forestlands and croplands, which have been estimated to amount to 4 million hectares in Yunnan Province alone. The southwestern areas of China have many forest areas with high biodiversity and land protection values (Perley, 2008).
Before implementation, countries need to assess greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental implications associated with various bioenergy alternatives in terms of a full life cycle – i.e. the full range of environmental impacts associated with production, including land-use change. The potential for bioenergy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is well recognized. Relevant projects are well represented in the current global pipeline of actions to be funded under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol. The CDM and other mechanisms should help overcome the financial barriers to carbon-efficient biofuel development, but because of complex rules and processes, access to the CDM itself by less developed countries is currently restricted (Peskett et al., 2007).
BOX 8: Scenarios for liquid biofuel development
The large-scale production of bioenergy requires extensive land areas, and there are concerns that first-generation liquid biofuel crops could affect food security and forest cover. To deal satisfactorily with land-use issues and their implications on forests,
liquid biofuel production could be expanded under one or a combination of the following scenarios:
- Turning degraded lands and/or lands currently dedicated to food crops over to bioenergy production (including wood energy). This approach would not be expected to impact upon forests although it could affect food security, especially in the case of large-scale operations, unless productivity is increased and/or synergies between food and energy production are found.
- Introducing liquid biofuel crops into forested areas. This would result in deforestation and impact on biodiversity and other forest goods and services, and would increase greenhouse gas emissions. Wood-based industries could face reductions in raw material supplies, and the demand for construction materials and other wood products may be reduced. Wood availability for energy production may increase in the short-term.
- Diverting wood produced from existing forests to energy production. This would have an impact on income and management of natural forests and plantations and would increase competition for resources among wood users. Wood available to the forest industry could decline in the short-term and the costs of products may increase.
- Increasing efficiency of wood use by optimizing processing and using wood residues and recovered wood to produce bioenergy. Significant amounts of energy could be generated and negative impacts on forestry and agriculture would be minimized.