Trade-offs and Bioenergy

Many material resources, such as trees and minerals, are readily valued through established markets where price signals determine the amount to be extracted, where they will be distributed and when.  Similarly, agricultural commodity markets regulate the production and flow of food, feed, fiber and fuel.   Not all resources are readily adjusted to such economic structures but are nonetheless essential to human well-being, particularly non-material resources and ecosystem services.

In 2005, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations popularized and formalized the concept and definitions of ecosystem services. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) organized ecosystem services into four broad categories:

  • Provisioning: the goods and products obtained from ecosystems, including food and fiber – both cultivated and wild
  • Regulating: the benefits derived from ecosystems’ control of natural processes such as erosion and natural hazards
  • Supporting: the services that are necessary for non-humans and maintenance of all other ecosystem services
  • Cultural: recreational, educational and spiritual benefits

Ecosystem services are not independent of each other.  As a result, attempts to maximize any particular ecosystem service typically leads to reduction of other ecosystem services at the same location or even elsewhere, in what are known as ecosystem service tradeoffs.  These trade-offs are an inherent consequence of human activity that changes the type, magnitude or relative mix of services provided by ecosystems.  Ecosystem services and management of trade-offs are key conceptual issues in the sustainability of bioenergy.