Sustainability and its Importance

There are many definitions of sustainability, each supporting various principals and concepts.  Essentially, however, sustainability can be described as 1) a set of goals; 2)  practices and behavior that support such goals; and 3) a branch of science.   As a set of goals, sustainability variably describes desired conditions (biotic and abiotic components) of the environment; and the ability of humans to receive benefits directly and indirectly from the environment, in the present as well as the future.  As practices and behaviors, sustainability describes human actions that support and enhance human well-being derived through interaction with the environment and its components, and which support the ability of the environment and human society to interact in ways that discourage reduced benefits.  Sustainability science is an emerging academic discipline that integrates scholarship and practice, and disciplines across the natural and social sciences, engineering, and medicine to advance both knowledge and action to evaluate, mitigate, and minimize the consequences of human impacts on planetary systems and societies.   Sustainability of bioenergy, therefore, will depend on the goals defined (and when and where and by whom those goals are defined), what actions and behaviors people are willing and able to adopt to support those goals, and the ability of science to assist human knowledge of connections between the many aspects of bioenergy and sustainability goals.

Emergence of new biomass markets has raised concerns about impacts to water, soil, biodiversity and other natural resources.  Publication of guidelines for sustainable production and harvest of biomass is one approach to ensuring that long-term resource productivity and quality are not compromised.  In most cases guidelines are designed to augment and enhance existing regulations and Best Management Practices (BMPs).  The forestry industry has been proactive in production of guidelines for several states and regions (e.g., Forest Biomass Retention and Harvesting Guidelines for the Northeast).  However, to-date only Wisconsin has produced sustainable production and harvest guidelines for non-forest biomassx.  In some instances, third-party certification is available for verifying that biomass has been harvested sustainably.  Currently there is no third-party certification for sustainably grown and harvested non-forest biomass.

Bioenergy is frequently evoked as an important tool in improving environmental sustainability, as well as the sustainability of energy, agriculture, forestry and other sectors of human activity.  However, much remains to be understood about the impacts of bioenergy on the environment and human society.  Whether, and to what degree, bioenergy is sustainable, and whether, and to what degree, it contributes to increased environmental sustainability as well as that of other sectors requires a case by case analysis.  Regardless, bioenergy currently provides a focus for improving our understanding and communications about sustainability, therefore increasing the likelihood of achieving desired outcomes.