Bioenergy has a large worldwide potential in future climate change abatement, although its application may become limited by demands for land for other functions. The aim of this study was to make an environmental assessment of the use of energy crops in the Netherlands in a context that incorporates scarcity of land.
A base case system was defined, consisting of conventional winter wheat production, set-aside land (1 hectare, together), and the production of coal-based electricity. Using life-cycle assessment, we compared this system with (1) a green energy system in which willow is cultivated on the set-aside land to replace the coal-based electricity and (2) an organic agriculture system in which the full hectare produces wheat under the Dutch EKO organic agriculture standard. In this way, the functional unit and the amount of land used is the same in each system. The final system comparison was based on normalized scores per environmental theme.
The green energy system scored the best with respect to acidification, climate change, and energy carrier depletion. The organic food system scored best on terrestrial eco-toxicity and slightly better on the mutually related themes of seawater and seawater sediment eco-toxicity. The base case system performed slightly better with regard to eutrophication.
Preferences, from an environmental point of view, for one of the systems should be determined by environmental policy priorities and the severity of local environmental problems. The case studied here shows that when climate change, energy carrier depletion, and acidification are the main drivers behind environmental policy, one should focus not on the extensification of agriculture, but rather dedicate more land to energy crops. Extensification of agriculture would be the preferred system when toxicity from pesticides is considered the main problem.