This Brief is an excerpt from an article recently published in ‘Environmental Research Letters’, see https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab07f5.
Over the past 15 years, many governments and international organizations have developed strategies and initiatives to foster an economy that increasingly uses bio-based materials, chemicals, and renewable energy sources. These efforts are driven by the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel dependence, with the expectation that a bio-based economic transformation will contribute to economic development and employment both in urban and rural regions.
The European Union (EU) is particularly active in promoting bio-based transformations and seeks to respond to global social-environmental challenges through its Bioeconomy Strategy. The bioeconomy has been envisioned as an important component for smart and green growth while simultaneously achieving the EU’s climate and other environmental targets and the 2030 Agenda. But the sustainability of the EU’s expanding bioeconomy has also been questioned. Evidence is rising that an expanding industrial bioeconomy, for example, causes direct and indirect land use change, thereby generating greenhouse gas emissions, and has implications for water quality and quantity. Imports of feedstock for the EU bioeconomy can thus have negative consequences for ecosystems in distant places.
65% foreign land areas for EU’s non-food consumption
While the vast majority (86%) of cropland embodied in the EU’s food consumption in 2010 stemmed from the EU itself [), for the case of non-food products only 35% (9.9 Mha) were based on domestic land resources. The remaining 65% of the cropland (18.3 Mha) was imported from outside the EU-28. Large amounts of embodied land (7.3 Mha) were also imported to serve manufacturing processes in the EU.
With 2.7 Mha of embodied land, China was a major supplying country for the EU, accounting for almost 10% of the EU’s non-food cropland footprint, mainly in the form of oil crops, maize, and fibre crops, or products derived therefrom. Indonesia, with 2 Mha, also provided large areas, largely related to palm and coconut oil. The group Rest of Asia-Pacific, including Malaysia, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Thailand, among others, supplied Europe particularly with vegetable oils, rubber, fibre crops and non-food alcohol. Northern America also played an important role as an exporter of maize for industrial uses (e.g. in the form of starch or ethanol).
In 2010, more than one third of the EU’s cropland footprint for non-food products was related to vegetable oils and oil crops, which are mainly consumed in the form of biofuels, detergents, lubricants and polymers. This is more than double the embodied land of this category in 1995. Increasing consumption of vegetable oils was a main determinant for the overall growth of the EU non-food cropland footprint.
Figure 1 provides a probability distribution of the EU’s footprint over a fine-scale grid for selected crops: a) maize and sugarcane, which together represent more than 90% of the global ethanol feedstock and in addition are used for material purposes e.g. in the production of adhesives or bioplastics; b) oil crops, which is the biggest crop category in the EU’s non-food cropland footprint; and c) fibre crops, mainly represented by cotton used in the textile industry.
Figure 1: European Union’s non-food related cropland use outside the EU in hectares per grid cell for a) maize and sugarcane, b) oil crops, and c) fibre crops. The colour scale indicates the number of hectares of cropland used by the EU in each grid-cell (5 arcminutes)
Spatially explicit footprint maps allow identifying regional hotspots, such as the maize plantations in the Great Plains of the US, or sugarcane in south-central Brazil. Malaysia and Indonesia are known as the world’s largest palm oil producers. They are also the key regions for the EU’s foreign oil crop demand, with particularly the Indonesian provinces of Riau and North Sumatra standing out, whereas Central and East Java show the highest EU demand per hectare for sugar cane and fibre crops. The extensively irrigated area around the river basins in the north-eastern part of the Indian subcontinent is another key region for the supply of cotton used in the EU.
Consistent spatially explicit supply chain and footprint assessments are essential to fully capture the spatiotemporal heterogeneity of biomass production and related impacts, such as deforestation, biodiversity loss or water scarcity, which differ greatly between production regions.
Europe’s global responsibility
Our analysis highlighted the increasing importance of non-food products, being the fastest growing source of direct and indirect demand for agricultural land in the EU, as well as globally. Europe therefore plays a crucial role in determining global developments. If the European bioeconomy were to promote sustainable development at global scale, tools need to be in place that monitor trade-induced land use spillover and displacement effects that emanate from the region’s energy, agricultural, and bioeconomy policy programs. Environmental footprint measures, such as the land footprint, together with global environmental targets, can guide the EU in its process of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, and provide the data basis to monitor and review progress.
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