One trend above all is becoming increasingly clear: climate change and the various regulatory, policy and business responses to it are driving what amounts to a worldwide economic and industrial restructuring. That restructuring has already begun to redefine the very basis of competitive advantage and financial performance for both companies and their investors.—Carbon Disclosure Project (2007)
The bio-economy takes simple and safe raw materials—the carbohydrates in plants—and converts them into fuels, polymers, fabrics, and other chemicals. Every function now served by petro-chemicals can also be served by biochemi-cals—more simply, safely, and sustainably.—Future 500 Partners
Today there is a convergence between two related and serious global concerns: (a) the emerging climate crisis brought on by fossil fuel combustion and land use change, and (b) an economy reliant on increasingly scarce and nonrenew-able fossil fuels for energy and materials. It is our premise that these two converging concerns have profound effects on land use change and agriculture and, in turn, will have a significant influence on sustainability.
The two concerns are related. There is clear evidence that climate change is caused by the human use of fossil carbon (for energy and feedstock for materials, such as plastic) and deforestation (which results primarily from agricultural expansion). Climate change has potentially profound effects on agriculture and forest productivity. The need to mitigate climate change has created political and policy pressure to reduce the use of fossil carbon through the development of renewable fuels and materials from biological feedstocks, mostly from land-based biomass in crops and forests. Land dedicated to agriculture that is threatened by climate change will be increasingly threatened by competition to grow biomass feedstocks. Indeed, some common crops used traditionally as a food source are being reengineered for fuels (e.g., corn, soybeans, oil palm, sugarcane). Moreover, land once devoted to agriculture is being converted to nonagricultural biomass for fuel and materials at high rates, while forests are also being converted to biofuel feedstock plantations.
We postulate that efforts to change our source of fuels and materials from fossil sources to natural sources will create a new bioeconomy. A revolutionary change from nonrenewable to a renewable carbon economy presents exciting prospects for a new economic system—one that can mitigate climate change and hasten sustainability. However, there may be accompanying risks to food security, water supplies, and the natural environment. The prospect of a carbon-constrained world is already transforming the world's economy, both positively and negatively. How we manage this transition is critical to a sustainable economy of the future.
We begin by reviewing the issue of climate change as caused by the unsustainable use of fossil carbon and deforestation for agriculture. Thereafter we examine the climate interactions with agriculture and land use change, and review the role of energy in agriculture today and the dynamics of a transition to a bioeconomy on the land. The concept of a biorefinery is proposed as a way to think about this new form of food, fuel, and materials processing. We conclude with a review of the potential for conflict or parsimony in this bioeconomy of the future and propose options for pathways to a sustainable future. Throughout, we focus on the challenges and opportunities for agriculture and land management in light of the fact that sustainability demands a transition of the global economy from one based on nonrenewable fossil carbon to one based on renewable carbon.
Was this article helpful?