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The sustainable use of bioenergy presents a major opportunity to address climate change by reducing fossil CO2 emissions. Practically all bioenergy systems deliver large greenhouse gas savings if they replace fossil-based energy causing high greenhouse gas emissions and if the bioenergy production emissions – including those arising due to land use change – are kept low.
Bioenergy projects can lead to both direct and indirect land use change. The effects of indirect land use change are especially difficult to quantify and achieving a consensus on the extent of the impact is unlikely in the near future. Even so, it can be concluded that land use change can affect greenhouse gas balances in several ways, with both beneficial and undesirable consequences from bioenergy’s contribution to climate change mitigation. However, bioenergy does not always entail land use change. The use of post-consumer organic residues and by-products from the agricultural and forest industries does not cause land use change if these materials are wastes, i.e. not utilised for alternative purposes.
Food, fibre and bioenergy crops can be grown in intergrated production systems, mitigating displacement effects and improving the productive use of land. Lignocellulosic feedstocks for bioenergy can decrease the pressure on prime cropping land. The targeting of marginal and degraded lands can mitigate land use change associated with bioenergy expansion and also enhance carbon sequestration in soils and biomass. Stimulation of increased productivity in all forms of land use reduces the land use change pressure.
Bioenergy’s contribution to climate change mitigation needs to reflect a balance between near-term targets and the long-term objective to hold the increase in global temperature below 2ºC (Copenhagen Accord). While emissions from land use change can be significant in some circumstances, the simple notion of land use change emissions is not sufficient reason to exclude bioenergy from the list of worthwhile technologies for climate change mitigation. Sound bioenergy development requires simple and transparent criteria that can be applied in a robust and predictable way. Policy measures implemented to minimise the negative impacts of land use change should be based on a holistic perspective recognising the multiple drivers and effects of land use change.