Advanced biomass feedstocks tend to provide more non-fuel ecosystem goods and services (ES) than 1st-generation alternatives. We explore the idea that payment for non-fuel ES could facilitate market penetration of advanced biofuels by closing the profitability gap. As a specific example, we discuss the Mississippi-Atchafalaya River Basin (MARB), where 1st-generation bioenergy feedstocks (e.g., corn-grain) have been integrated into the agricultural landscape. Downstream, the MARB drains to the Gulf of Mexico, where the most-valuable fishery in the US is impacted by annual formation of a large hypoxic "Dead zone." We suggest that advanced biomass production systems in the MARB can increase and stabilize the provision of ES derived from the coastal and marine ecosystems of the Gulf-of-Mexico. Upstream, we suggest that choosing feedstocks based on their resistance or resilience to disturbance (e.g., perennials, diverse feedstocks) can increase reliability in ES provision over time. Direct feedbacks to incentivize producers of advanced feedstocks are currently lacking. Perhaps a shift from first-generation biofuels to perennial-based fuels and other advanced bioenergy systems (e.g., algal diesel, biogas from animal wastes) can be encouraged by bringing downstream environmental externalities into the market for upstream producers. In future, we can create such feedbacks through payments for ES, but significant research is needed to pave the way.
Synthesis manuscript for an Ecology & Society Special Feature on Telecoupling: A New Frontier for Global Sustainability
Abstract: European demand for renewable energy resources has led to rapidly increasing transatlantic exports of wood pellets from the southeastern United States (SE US) since 2009. Disagreements have arisen over the global greenhouse gas reductions associated with replacing coal with wood, and groups on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean have raised concerns that increasing biomass exports might negatively affect SE US forests and the ecosystem services they provide. We use the telecoupling framework to test assertions that the intended benefits of the wood pellet trade for Europe might be offset by negative consequences in the SE US. Through a review of current literature and available data sets, we characterize the observed and potential changes in the environmental, social, and economic components of the sending and receiving regions to assess the overall sustainability of this renewable energy system. We conclude that the observed transatlantic wood pellet trade is an example of a mutually beneficial telecoupled system with the potential to provide environmental and socioeconomic benefits in both the SE US and Europe despite some negative effects on the coal industry. We recommend continued monitoring of this telecoupled system to quantify the environmental, social, and economic interactions and effects in the sending, receiving, and spillover systems over time so that evidence-based policy decisions can be made with regard to the sustainability of this renewable energy pathway.
Citation: Parish, E. S., A. J. Herzberger, C. C. Phifer and V. H. Dale. 2018. Transatlantic wood pellet trade demonstrates telecoupled benefits. Ecology and Society 23 (1):28. [online] URL:https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol23/iss1/art28/
Abstract: Cellulosic-based biofuels are needed to help meet energy needs and to strengthen rural investment and development in the midwestern United States (US). This analysis identifies 11 categories of indicators to measure progress toward sustainability that should be monitored to determine if ecosystem and social services are being maintained, enhanced, or disrupted by production, harvest, storage, and transport of cellulosic feedstock. The indicator categories are identified using scientific literature, input from two stakeholder meetings, and response information from targeted surveys. Five of the categories focus on environmental concerns (soil quality, water quality and quantity, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity, and productivity), and six focus on socioeconomic categories (social well-being, energy security, external trade, profitability, resource conservation, and social acceptability). We hypothesize that by measuring these indicators, it will be feasible to quantify changes in ecosystem and social services related to provisioning (e.g., energy, nutrition and materials), cultural, regulating, and supporting services such as optimum soil water and nutrient balances, remediation of wastes, toxins, or other nuisance compounds, and continuation of physical, biological and chemical conditions. To advance our hypothesis from conceptual to real-world sustainability assessments, the next step will be to work with a team of stakeholders and researchers to implement a Landscape Design Project entitled “Enabling Sustainable Landscape Design for Continual Improvement of Operating Bioenergy Supply Systems.” The desired outcome is to identify a science-based approach so that progress toward sustainability can be assessed and useful management practices can be identified.
As with all land transformation activities, effects on biodiversity and ecosystem services of producing feedstocks for biofuels are highly variable and context specific. Advances toward more sustainable biofuel production benefit from a system's perspective, recognizing spatial heterogeneity and scale, landscape-design principles, and addressing the influences of context such as the particular products and their distribution, policy background, stakeholder values, location, temporal influences, and baseline conditions. Deploying biofuels in a manner to reduce effects on biodiversity and associated ecosystem services can only be done with planning, monitoring, and appropriate goverance. The effects of biofuels can be avoided or reduced by conservation of priority biodiversity areas, recognizing the context specific effects of biofuels, and adopting location-specific management of production systems. Developing those management strategies takes time and effort.
Potential global biodiversity impacts from near-term gasoline production are compared to biofuel, a renewable liquid transportation fuel expected to substitute for gasoline in the near term (i.e., from now until c. 2030). Petroleum exploration activities are projected to extend across more than 5.8 billion ha of land and ocean worldwide (of which 3.1 bllion is on land), much of which is in remote, fragile terrestrial ecosystems or off-shore oil fields that would remain relatively undisturbed if not for interest in fossil fuel production. Future biomass production for biofuels is projected to fall within 2.0 billion ha of land, most of which is located in areas already impacted by human activities. A comparison of likely fuel-source areas to the geospatial distribution of species reveals that both energy sources overlap with areas with high species richness and large numbers of threatened species. At the global scale, future petroleum production areas intersect more than double the area and a higher total number of threatened species than future biofuel production. Energy options should be developed to optimize provisioning of ecosystems services while minimizing negative effects, which requires information about potential impacts on critical resources. Energy conservation and identifying and effectively protecting habitats with high-concervation value are critical first steps toward protecting biodiversity under any fuel production scenario.