More forests, deserts and grasslands in the United States will be
used to produce energy under a proposal to cap greenhouse gases, an
unintended consequence of efforts to fight global warming, according to
a Nature Conservancy report released this week.
A bill that boosts energy from wind turbines and biofuels will
increase the amount of land needed for energy development as much as 48
percent, or almost 100,000 square kilometers (38,600 square miles)
during the next 20 years, said Robert McDonald, a scientist with the
environmental group based in Arlington, Va. An area larger than
Minnesota will be affected even without any climate-change bill, he
Less land will be needed to grow corn for cleaner-burning ethanol
and to support electric-generating wind turbines if legislation gives
carbon-dioxide emitters more options to reach targets, said the report,
published this week in the online journal PloS One. Greater energy
conservation can also reduce the amount of land needed for development.
“Climate-change legislation could have a significant impact on land
use in the U.S. but it might not if it’s properly designed,” McDonald,
lead author of the report, said in an interview. “We’re tying to make
sure that energy sprawl is one of the things policy makers are thinking
Biofuel made from corn, along with biomass burned to make
electricity, affects the most land for every unit of energy produced.
Nuclear power uses the least amount of land, the report said.
Corn for ethanol
Growing corn for ethanol on land already used for agriculture is one
way to reduce the area needed to meet future energy needs, McDonald
said. Allowing utilities and manufacturers with carbon-dioxide caps to
use offsets — credits from projects that lower emissions — to meet
pollution targets also reduces land use for energy.
The report analyzes the land-use implications of a climate-change
bill that failed in the Senate last year. A bill that passed the House
in June would have a “very similar” effect, McDonald said.
“Depending on the details of the bill, there may be millions of
acres of new development,” McDonald said. “While we’re changing the
rules of the system, we want to think about the land-use impacts.”
By the numbers
Without climate-change legislation, new coal-fired power plants will
be built on more than 26,000 square kilometers of conifer and deciduous
forests, grasslands and desert, according to the report.
Under a climate bill, costs for power from burning fossil fuels will
rise, and the area needed for coal-burning power plants will be reduced
by 7,500 square kilometers (2,896 square miles).
More land, meanwhile, will be needed for lower-emissions energy from
biomass, biofuels and wind turbines. More than 49,000 square kilometers
(18,919 square miles) will be needed just to grown biomass that can be
burned for electricity under a climate-change bill.
“In the scenarios we considered, there is a tendency for greater
reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions to be associated with a greater
total new area affected by energy development,” the report said.
“A decrease in U.S. emissions increases the new area impacted, although the magnitude of the effect is policy-specific.”