A novel, integrated approach to assessing social, economic and environmental implications of changing rural land-use: a case study of perennial biomass crops.
Concern about climate change and energy security is stimulating land-use change, which in turn precipitates social, economic and environmental responses. It is predicted that within 20 years in the UK, bioenergy crops could occupy significant areas of rural land. Among these, dedicated biomass crops, such as Miscanthus (Miscanthus spp.) grass and short rotation willow (Salix spp.) coppice, differ significantly from arable crops in their growth characteristics and management. It is important that the potential impacts of these differences are assessed before large-scale, long-term planting occurs. We used a Sustainability Appraisal Framework (SAF) approach to landscape planning in the UK to identify stakeholder aspirations (objectives) and associated criteria (indicators) for the planting of dedicated biomass crops. The use of environmental and physical constraints mapping allowed the SAF to focus only on environmentally-acceptable locations, thereby avoiding unsustainable trade-offs. The mapping identified 3.1 million ha of land in England as suitable for planting, suggesting the UK government target of 1.1 million ha by 2020 is feasible. Evaluation of the SAF identified that while biodiversity was of concern to stakeholders, some current indicators of biodiversity are not appropriate. Butterfly abundance proved the most appropriate indicator, and it was found that total abundance was greater in field margins of both willow and Miscanthus biomass crops than in arable field margins. Synthesis and applications. The potential conflicts of assuring food security, water availability, energy security and biodiversity conservation are recognized as a key challenge by governments worldwide. Methods with which decision-makers can compare the performance of different land-use scenarios against sustainability objectives will be crucial for achieving optimized and sustainable use of land-based resources to meet all four challenges. Using biomass crops planting as an example, this work illustrates the potential of a Sustainability Appraisal Framework, subject to identification and agreement of appropriate indicators, in securing a holistic understanding of the wide-ranging implications of large-scale, long-term changes to rural land-use in the wider context of sustainable land-use planning per se.