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Finding Value in the Margins to Build a Bioeconomy

Monetizing environmental services of biofuel feedstocks could incentivize farmers to take advantage of marginal agricultural lands while also benefiting the landscape.

Transitioning from the use of fossil fuels to biofuels—particularly in the transportation sector, which is a major source of direct greenhouse gas emissions—is one of the key means envisioned to reach emissions reduction targets outlined in the Paris Agreement. Growth rates of biofuel production are lagging, however.

Providing sustainably sourced biomass that supports biofuel production but does not displace food crops or biodiversity conservation is a challenge. To avoid such displacements, farmers often use marginal agricultural lands, but this can come with economic disadvantages. One way to balance the checkbook is to pay farmers for environmental services—that is, for benefits proffered by cultivated landscapes, like increased pollination, carbon sequestration, and flood control, among others. (Ecosystem services refer to the contributions of native landscapes.)

Monetizing environmental services can guide public subsidies for biofuel crops and incentivize agricultural producers to put their marginal lands to work. In a new studyVon Cossel et al.calculated the value of environmental services provided by Miscanthus Andersson, a promising biofuel feedstock, in the agricultural region of Brandenburg, Germany. Native to East Asia, the perennial grass can be used to produce isobutanol, a replacement for ethanol, and it delivers high yields in varied environments. Research has shown that the plant also reduces erosion, improves soil fertility, and protects groundwater; however, it remains underused in the United States and Europe.

The researchers referenced previous work to valorize various environmental services associated with Miscanthus. In total, the authors found that Miscanthus cultivation is annually worth between about $1,400 and $4,900 (€1,200–€4,183) per hectare, 3 times more than the value of the raw material for biofuel. The results showed that Miscanthus annually provides up to $900 (€771) per hectare for flood control and almost $60 (€50) for pollination, for instance.

The authors say that analyses such as this one are critical components in the transition to a bioeconomy. And they suggest that monetizing environmental services can help pave the way for the world to reach established biofuel targets, such as that set by the International Energy Agency, which envisions biofuels with a 10% share in the transportation sector by 2030. (Earth’s Future, 2020)

This story originally appeared in and is published here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story, of which Real Leaders is a partner.

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