By Robert Holland, University of Southampton
You wait a year for one COP and then two come along together! Autumn 2021 marks the arrival of international meetings that have the potential to shape how society deals with two of the most pressing issues that it faces – the loss of biodiversity and climate change. Starting on 11 October is the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Convention of Biological Diversity. This meeting, and a subsequent one early next year, will see the adoption of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework for the “conservation, protection, restoration and sustainable management of biodiversity and ecosystems” to 2030 and beyond. Later in the month COP26, held jointly between the UK and Italy, will ask countries to come forward with emission reduction targets that will keep the global ambition of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees within reach, and to take actions to limit the impact that the already changing climate will have on them in the future. Although these conferences are being held independently, there is increasing recognition that our ability to achieve the goals of either one is inextricably linked to the success of the other.
Bioenergy is seen as playing a critical role in our ambitions to meet net zero by the middle of the next century. However, the projected scale of deployment, with some pathways suggesting up to 7 million km2 of bioenergy by 2050, raises important questions about how compatible our ambitions for the climate are with our ambitions for biodiversity and ecosystems. Although context and feedstock dependent, at the scale of an individual field conversion of arable land to bioenergy production can lead to significant improvements in biodiversity. Importantly such benefits seem to accrue across all taxonomic levels from the charismatic fauna such as birds and mammals, to the plants, invertebrates and microbes that underpin much of the function of our ecosystems and so are essential for life on Earth.
As we scale up from the individual field towards deployment patterns in line with those projected to meet 1.5C, there are important questions to ask about whether such benefits will also scale. It is widely recognised that since the start of the great acceleration, when the level of human activities such as agricultural production sharply increased, land cover and land use change has been the most significant driver of the loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystems globally. The question is therefore whether a similar ‘great acceleration’ in the production of bioenergy as a way of meeting our climate ambitions will simply increase the pressures on biodiversity and ecosystems undermining global targets related to them. If this is the case, then we might rightly ask ourselves whether the actions we are taking to limit the environmental consequences of climate change may result in a greater environmental impact than would be experienced were we to do nothing. Or, as Boris Johnson would undoubtedly put it, could it be the case that Aegrescit medendo – the remedy is worse than the disease? If so, we need to radically rethink how our climate ambition can be achieved.
Evidence collated in the IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land indicates that 1.5C pathways that rely on large-scale land conversion to bioenergy could have substantial adverse effects on biodiversity, water resources and food security, and drive land degradation. However, these negative impacts are not a foregone conclusion. An approach to deployment of bioenergy that embraces best land and farm management practices, recognises the social, economic and cultural context in which production occurs, and brings in stakeholders at the local level will deliver co-benefits to biodiversity and ecosystems. So win-wins are possible, but only if done right.
This brings us back to autumn 2021. Although there are still gaps in our understanding around deployment strategies for bioenergy, particularly at the scale that may be required to meet our climate ambitions, we are at a point where we do understand the policy and practices that must be put in place to expand bioenergy production in a way that supports our ambitions for both the climate and biodiversity. We are also aware of the limits of our knowledge, where care must be taken, and where further research is needed. Be it as a farmer, a researcher, in government or as part of an NGO, it is our duty to look across the agendas at COP15 and COP26 and consider how bioenergy can best support the ambitions they set out for our planet’s future.
Photo credit: Dr Silviu Petrovan