Bioenergy Agro-Ecosystems: Capturing the Links

New Research from Voinovich School Professor
Grace Keyes |

Sarah DavisClose to half of all arable land on earth is dedicated to pasture or cropland. But it is not just to feed the world’s growing population anymore. Increasingly we are growing our energy, using biofuels to meet our intensifying energy demands while developing more sustainable and less fossil fuel-based energy sources.

But moving away from greenhouse gases (GHG) to reduce climate change isn’t the only basis for evaluating this move to biofuels and away from fossil fuels. Dr. Sarah Davis, an ecosystem ecologist and assistant professor at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, sees increased arable land use for biofuel production as presenting other biogeochemical and biophysical impacts on our climate. She describes these impacts along with her co-authors in a recently published paper “The biophysical link between climate, water, and vegetation in bioenergy agro-ecosystems” in the journal Biomass and Bioenergy.

Davis and her colleagues remind us that just as climatic changes can influence vegetation, the “distribution and composition” of terrestrial vegetation can influence the climate. How we manage and make changes in bioenergy agro-ecosystems carries direct implications for important ecosystems services that “extend beyond biogeochemical GHG regulation and harvestable yields.”

The United States and Brazil account for 68% of global biofuel production. The United States largely produces maize (corn) for ethanol and Brazil produces sugarcane. Davis argues that currently in the United States, the level of bioenergy production is not viable for the existing climate. Davis says that “regionally appropriate” species need to be introduced to an agricultural landscape in order to avoid disrupting a regional hydro-climate. Increased regional precipitation and atmospheric instability are two possible effects of a homogenized region of vegetation.

As the bioenergy field develops, Davis and her colleagues’ research suggests that decision-makers should prioritize “regionally appropriate” species that take wider account of native vegetation, water systems, and local and regional hydro-climates. Considering GHG reductions and feedstock productivity should not be the only basis for advancing biofuel strategies.

Grace Keyes is a Global Studies Student and an Undergraduate Research Scholar at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.

Sarah Davis

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