Improving Resource Productivity Key to Meeting Future Human Needs

The 20th century was characterized by surging population and global economic output and declining resource prices (food, energy, water, materials). The start of the 21st century finds surging population and resource prices and stalling global economic output. Resource prices and price volatility are likely to keep increasing in the years ahead. However, a recent McKinsey Global Institute report finds that increasing resource productivity can play a critical role in moderating future resource demand.

The McKinsey Global Institute report “Resource Revolution: Meeting the World’s Energy, Materials, Food, and Water Needs” identifies 15 of the best opportunities to improve resource productivity. Increasing agricultural productivity, reducing food waste, reducing land degradation, and improving water management are among the top 15 strategies to reducing resource demand 30 percent below what it would be in 2030 with a business as usual scenario.

Improving resource productivity can be profitable. The study finds that about 70 percent of these resource productivity-enhancing opportunities “have an internal rate of return of more than 10 percent at current prices” and with current subsidies and tax structures in place. Remove the subsidies and put a modest price on fossil carbon ($30 per ton), and then 90 percent of the identified opportunities would have a rate of return better than 10 percent.

Comment: What does this have to do with sustainable biomass and bioenergy? Although biomass and bioenergy are not among the top 15 opportunities highlighted in the McKinsey report, they can play direct and complementary roles in improving the resource productivity of energy, materials, food, and water. Bioenergy can be an important co-product in the production of bio-based products and materials and food. Sustainable biomass production can be a complementary co-product of water conservation activities, protecting and restoring water quality, and reducing soil erosion and land degradation. It can also be a way of putting degraded, marginal, and abandoned lands to more productive uses, while advancing other critical energy, economic, and environmental security objectives.

For example, a December 13 article in Science Daily reports on a recent study by USDA scientists on the effects of using biochar, a co-product of biomass pyrolysis, in soils. The researchers found that adding biochar to glacial soils can help reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. Other studies have found that biochar can enhance nutrient and water retention properties in soils, enhancing agricultural productivity.

In another recent example, a December 9 literature review published in Global Change Biology: Bioenergy, the authors find that the production of switchgrass for bioenergy can contribute significantly to mitigating climate change when it is grown on abandoned agricultural lands. Increasing the productivity of marginal and abandoned lands with energy crops could help reduce demand for finite fossil fuels.

Bioenergy production need not come at the expense of food production. A November 25 Science Daily article reported on a study by the UK Energy Research Center, which finds that “up to a fifth of global energy could come from biomass without damaging food production.” Intensifying all aspects of agriculture and forestry sustainably to increase productivity from the land will be key to meeting increasing demand for food, fiber, fuel, and ecosystem services in the years ahead.