Bioenergy crops can be a good strategy for climate change adaptation. Recent studies show benefits and sinergies between energy, environment and food. Climate impacts could lead to a drastic increase in food prices over the coming decades as the agricultural industry struggles to adapt to shifting climatic patterns. That is the stark warning contained in a series of studies published this week by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in a Special Issue of the journal Agricultural Economics.
The studies acknowledge concerns that a major expansion of bioenergy production was before supposed to lead to higher food prices as land previously used for food production is switched to produce energy crops. But PIK concluded that “global food markets would be affected much more by unmitigated climate change than by an increased bioenergy demand”. Other studies had also shown that using lignocellulosic crops for biopower, bioheat or second generation biofuels, would not lead to food prices; moreover if those crops are cultivated in surplus land or marginal areas. Recently other studies have also found that those countries introducing biofuels have increase their food production cultivated areas (opposite to many models) suggesting also that many byproducts and sinergies between energy and food sectors are complext and difficult the estimation of land use change effects. And all this is coincident with recent projects on climate change and perennial systems (developed by CGIAR).
Additionally, lignocellulosic crops in marginal areas might increase bioheat and biopower or second generation biofuels providing higher income to underdeveloped and marginal areas or can boost competitiveness of many industries like for example sugar cane.
The various models developed by the researchers claim agricultural prices could be about 25 per cent higher in 2050 as a result of direct climate impacts on crop yields compared with a reference scenario where climate change does not occur. In contrast, the expansion of the bioenergy sector as part of a scenario where ambitious emission reduction efforts are undertaken globally are expected to raise food prices by about five per cent.
The journal features three separate studies from PIK, which assess the impact of climate change on demand for cropland, the effect of climate impacts on crop yields, and how second generation biofuels could help decarbonise the transport sector. Christoph Schmitz, who led the research on cropland, said climate impacts were likely to lead to a drastic increase in demand for cropland. “We find most models projecting an increase in cropland by 2050 that is more than 50 per cent higher in scenarios with unabated climate change than in those assuming a constant climate,” he said in a statement, adding that the increase meant the world would require 320 million hectares instead of about 200 million hectares by 2050 – a difference equal to an area roughly three times the size of Germany. He warned that with most of the demand for new cropland likely to come in South America and Sub-Saharan Africa, there was a real risk that climate impacts would have a knock-on effect of pushing up greenhouse gas emissions. However, we want to point out that most models have not considered adaptation measures in Latin America, as also mentioned in very recent publications.
One of the reasons why demand for cropland is likely to increase was explored in a separate study, which concluded that while climate change may lead to higher agricultural yields in some regions, others will be hit by steep declines in food production. “Potential climate change impacts on crop yields are strong but vary widely across regions and crops,” said lead-author Christoph Müller, adding that for rice, wheat, maize, soybeans and peanuts, the study finds a climate-induced decrease in yields of between 10 per cent and 38 per cent globally by 2050 in a business-as-usual scenario of rising greenhouse-gas emissions, compared with current conditions. He also predicted that “a more flexible global agricultural trading system would be needed” to ensure that areas that see increases in production can help compensate for those areas that see steep falls in agricultural yields.
Lignocellulosic crops contributing to adaptation measures
Crops for biomass can introduce several benefits and alternative measures contributing to farmers climate change adaptation. If perennial bioenergy crops are developed mainly for marginal and low competitive areas or to boost food production systems, it is possible to have a great potential instrument to increase resource allocation efficiency and improve sinergies between food crops and energy in the rural sector. Million of hectares globally could be green covered with perennial grasses, short rotation coppice and forestry. More rotations and less monoculture and feedstock combinations like in biogas sectors (manure, grasses, corn, urban residues). The fact is that climate change, adaptation, bioenergy and food security have all great linkages and researchers and politicians are just starting to understand how the interactions could result in each specific location.
Some interesting benefitial aspects of lignocellulosic bioenergy crops can be used as adaptation measure reducing impacts of climate change are here below:
- Energy solutions and improvements can provide additionaly income and rural development. This, itself, implies an increment on food security (through increment in food access mainly). We have good examples explained in this post.
- Decarbonization and greenhouse emission savings when replacing fossil fuels using liquid biofuels for transport, thermal and power energy from solid biomas, biomethane and syngas, etc.
- Lignocellulosic crops can offer “valuable” environmental advantages
- Soil improvements in desertified areas are viable because most lignocellulosic crops producing low cost biomass are perennial species and all companies prefer them instead of annual crops and monocultures.
- Most energy crops programs are more stable with participatory schemes including all stakeholders. This is a benefit helping farmers adpatation and technology transfer.
- Combination of food, cattle and bioenergy with many alternative energy crops can improve biodiverisity providing more stability and reducing farmers risks (e.g. risk diveraification offering many products including bioproducts, wood, energy and food)
- Perennial crops coverage reduce erosion and can serve to minimize impact of climate change in several areas where desertification is expected to happen as well it can improve flood resilience.
- Several lignocellulosic crops can produce low cost feedstock (and income) if used for bioheat/biopower in vulnerable irrigated. Several species can have lower water requirements compared to not competitive crops or can introduce rotations having sinergies. This can allow to increase irrigated areas in many sensible basins and aquifers.
- Several species of energy crops produce lignocellulosic biomass when grains, tubers or many crops for food or forage are just no viable. Some good examples are hardy grasses in cold-arid lands and we have a good post about that here.
Some interesting videos and presentations on this issue: