Consensus, uncertainties and challenges for perennial bioenergy crops and land use

Jeanette Whitaker*, John L. Field, Carl J. Bernacchi, Carlos E. P. Cerri, Reinhart Ceulemans, Christian A. Davies, Evan H. Delucia, Iain S. Donnison, Jon P. McCalmont, Keith Paustian, Rebecca L. Rowe, Pete Smith, Patricia Thornley, Niall P. Mcnamara

*Corresponding author for this work

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Perennial bioenergy crops have significant potential to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and contribute to climate change mitigation by substituting for fossil fuels; yet delivering significant GHG savings will require substantial land-use change, globally. Over the last decade, research has delivered improved understanding of the environmental benefits and risks of this transition to perennial bioenergy crops, addressing concerns that the impacts of land conversion to perennial bioenergy crops could result in increased rather than decreased GHG emissions. For policymakers to assess the most cost-effective and sustainable options for deployment and climate change mitigation, synthesis of these studies is needed to support evidence-based decision making. In 2015, a workshop was convened with researchers, policymakers and industry/business representatives from the UK, EU and internationally. Outcomes from global research on bioenergy land-use change were compared to identify areas of consensus, key uncertainties, and research priorities. Here, we discuss the strength of evidence for and against six consensus statements summarising the effects of land-use change to perennial bioenergy crops on the cycling of carbon, nitrogen and water, in the context of the whole life-cycle of bioenergy production. Our analysis suggests that the direct impacts of dedicated perennial bioenergy crops on soil carbon and nitrous oxide are increasingly well understood and are often consistent with significant life cycle GHG mitigation from bioenergy relative to conventional energy sources. We conclude that the GHG balance of perennial bioenergy crop cultivation will often be favourable, with maximum GHG savings achieved where crops are grown on soils with low carbon stocks and conservative nutrient application, accruing additional environmental benefits such as improved water quality. The analysis reported here demonstrates there is a mature and increasingly comprehensive evidence base on the environmental benefits and risks of bioenergy cultivation which can support the development of a sustainable bioenergy industry.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)150-164
Number of pages15
JournalGlobal Change Biology. Bioenergy
Issue number3
Early online date27 Nov 2017
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2018

Bibliographical note

This work is the product of a workshop held at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in 2015 sponsored by the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI), Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Algal Bioenergy Special Interest Group. The views presented here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the sponsoring organizations. Exemplar projects used in the workshop include the ELUM: Ecosystem Land Use Modelling project commissioned and funded by the Energy Technologies Institute and POPFULL supported by the European Research Council under the European Commission's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) as ERC Advanced Grant agreement #233366. JW holds a NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellowship on bioenergy and soil sustainability (NE/M006832/1); NM, JW, RR, PS, JM and ID contribute to ETI-ELUM (ETI/ET/I000100/1) and MAGLUE (EPSRC Supergen Bioenergy Hub Challenge grant EP/M013200/1). The input of PS also contributes to projects, Assess-BECCS (funded by UKERC) and Soils-R-GRREAT (NE/P019455/1). Support for JF and KP from USDA/NIFA research grants (2011-67009-30083; 2013-68005-21298) is acknowledged. EHD was supported by a grant from the North Central Regional Sun Grant Center at South Dakota State University through a grant provided by the US Department of Energy Office of Biomass Programs (award number DE-FG36-08GO88073), with additional support provided to EHD and CJB by the Energy Biosciences Institute, University of Illinois and University of California, Berkeley.


  • Biofuels
  • Biomass
  • Greenhouse gas emissions
  • Land-use change
  • Life-cycle assessment
  • Nitrous oxide
  • Perennial bioenergy crops
  • Soil carbon


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