We can harvest bioenergy from preserves while protecting biodiversity

Koenraad Van Meerbeek, a researcher in the Departement Aard- en Omgevingswetenschappen (Earth and Environmental Sciences) at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium, shares this Frontiers Focus on the potential of Natura 2000 preserves to contribute biomass for bioenergy, without losing  biodiversity.

White-winged Terns (Chlidonias leucopterus) take flight from a meadow in Biebrza National Park, a Natura 2000 site (PLB200006) in Poland. Credit, Frank Vassen CC BY 2.0.

White-winged Terns (Chlidonias leucopterus) take flight from a meadow in Biebrza National Park, a Natura 2000 site (PLB200006) in Poland. Credit, Frank Vassen CC BY 2.0.

Renewable energy from biomass, i.e. “bioenergy,” holds promise for climate change mitigation, but converting big tracts of land to bioenergy crops can have bad effects on biodiversity. This is a critical concern, because ecosystems need a rich variety of species to function. People rely on functioning ecosystems for food production, water and air purification or flood control. And bioenergy requires a lot of land.

My colleagues and I believe that climate change and biodiversity mitigation, two of the world’s most challenging problems in the 21st century, need not be at odds. We show how the vast bioenergy potential of the European nature conservation network Natura 2000 could be exploited, while still protecting and restoring biodiversity, in the November issue of ESA Frontiers.

Drawing on the 78 million hectares of protected lands in the Natura 2000 network for bioenergy feedstock relieves pressure to displace food production on agricultural lands – which risks raising food prices for vulnerable people. We believe we can harvest feedstock on protected lands without compromising biodiversity goals.

The key strategy to preserve biodiversity has been the establishment of protected areas. But protecting land is not enough to halt biodiversity loss. Some of the most threatened habitats need consistent human intervention, because the environmental conditions that once maintained them have been so changed by human development. Many familiar European ecosystems were shaped by centuries of farming and grazing livestock. We estimate that 7.5 million hectares, or about 10 percent, of the Natura 2000 lands consist of semi-natural, open ecosystems.

To preserve these species-rich grasslands, wetlands and heathlands, some kind of management, like mowing, grazing or sod-cutting, is necessary. We advocate for such conservation methods in Natura 2000’s protected areas, and see an opportunity to harvest bioenergy feedstock sustainably. Existing technology can process into fuel highly diverse biological materials, like the mix of grasses in a wild meadow.

Nature management is all too often regarded as a cost. We show that it can an opportunity to produce a more sustainable feedstock alternative for the currently-used energy crops.


november-frontiers-coverKoenraad Van Meerbeek, Sam Ottoy, María de Andrés García, Bart Muys, Martin Hermy (2016) The bioenergy potential of Natura 2000 – a synergy between climate change mitigation and biodiversity protection. Front Ecol Environ 14(9):473–478, doi:10.1002/fee.1425

Author: Frontiers Focus

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