How resilient is the social licence of energy cropping?

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Alex Baumber Bioenergy Australia Conference Presentation Nov 2016.pdfPublished version2.84 MB
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Energy cropping is well established in many countries, from Brazilian sugarcane to US corn ethanol to woody crops like poplar in Europe. Australia offers significant potential for energy crop expansion, especially as advances are made around cellulosic biofuels from woody biomass. A potential threat to this expansion is the criticism energy cropping has attracted, from the food vs fuel debate to the clearing of tropical rainforests for oil palm. One response has been the development of sustainability criteria and standards to ensure that governments do not promote forms of bioenergy that pose such threats. However, this alone may not be enough to ensure that energy cropping systems are able to earn and maintain a ‘social licence to operate’ from affected communities. The phrase ‘social licence to operate’ first emerged in the mining sector in the 1990s to describe the extent to which society is prepared to accept the resource use practices of private companies. It has since been applied to activities such as windfarms and agriculture. Energy cropping are well suited to analysis using the social licence concept because it presents not only environmental risks (which may threaten its social licence), but also potential benefits such as climate change mitigation and landscape protection, which may strengthen its social licence. This paper considers not only which energy crops currently have a social licence to operate, but also how resilient this social licence is likely to be in response to unexpected shocks and controversies. It will draw on lessons from overseas, where certain energy crops have shown signs of losing their social licence (e.g. first-generation biofuel crops in the EU) and other sectors, such as pulpwood plantations in southern Australia. The fact that a particular innovation offers an environmental benefit is no guarantee that it will obtain a social licence from affected communities, with a prominent example being opposition to wind farms in parts of Australia (Hall et al. 2015). However, if environmentally-beneficial practices are unable to earn and maintain a social licence, there is a risk that they may fail before their potential benefits are realised.
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