Energy Sprawl or Energy Efficiency: Climate Policy Impacts on Natural Habitat for the United States of America

Abstract: Concern over climate change has led the U.S. to consider a cap-and-trade system to regulate emissions. Here we illustrate the land-use impact to U.S. habitat types of new energy development resulting from different U.S. energy policies. We estimated the total new land area needed by 2030 to produce energy, under current law and under various cap-and-trade policies, and then partitioned the area impacted among habitat types with geospatial data on the feasibility of production. The land-use intensity of different energy production techniques varies over three orders of magnitude, from 1.9–2.8 km2/TW hr/yr for nuclear power to 788–1000 km2/TW hr/yr for biodiesel from soy. In all scenarios, temperate deciduous forests and temperate grasslands will be most impacted by future energy development, although the magnitude of impact by wind, biomass, and coal to different habitat types is policy-specific. Regardless of the existence or structure of a cap-and-trade bill, at least 206,000 km2 will be impacted without substantial increases in energy efficiency, which saves at least 7.6 km2 per TW hr of electricity conserved annually and 27.5 km2 per TW hr of liquid fuels conserved annually. Climate policy that reduces carbon dioxide emissions may increase the areal impact of energy, although the magnitude of this potential side effect may be substantially mitigated by increases in energy efficiency. The possibility of widespread energy sprawl increases the need for energy conservation, appropriate siting, sustainable production practices, and compensatory mitigation offsets.


Climate change is now acknowledged as a potential threat to biodiversity and human well-being, and many countries are seeking to reduce their emissions by shifting from fossil fuels to other energy sources. One potential side effect with this switch is the increase in area required by some renewable energy production techniques. Energy production techniques vary in the spatial extent in which production activities occur, which we refer to as their energy sprawl, defined as the product of the total quantity of energy produced annually (e.g., TW hr/yr) and the land-use intensity of production (e.g. km2of habitat per TW hr/yr). While many studies have quantified the likely effect of climate change on the Earth’s biodiversity due to climate-driven habitat loss, concluding that a large proportion of species could be driven extinct, relatively few studies have evaluated the habitat impact of future energy sprawl. It is important to understand the potential habitat effects of energy sprawl, especially in reference to the loss of specific habitat types, since habitats vary markedly in the species and ecosystem processes they support.

Within the United States, the world’s largest cumulative polluter of greenhouse gases, concern over climate change has led to the consideration of a cap-and-trade system to regulate emissions, such as the previously proposed Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act (S. 2191) and the Low Carbon Economy Act (S. 1766). Major points of contention in structuring a cap-and-trade system are the feasibility and desirability of carbon capture and storage (CCS) at coal plants, the creation of new nuclear plants, and whether to allow international offset programs that permit U.S. companies to meet obligations abroad. The rules of a cap-and-trade system, as well as technological advances in energy production and changes in the price of fossil fuels, will affect how the U.S. generates energy. In this study we take scenarios of a cap-and-trade system’s effect on United States energy production and evaluate each scenario’s impact on habitat due to energy sprawl. Our scenarios  are based on the Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecast of energy production in 2030 under current law (the “Reference Scenario”), including the renewable fuel standard of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, and under three cap-and-trade scenarios: the “Core Cap-and-Trade Scenario”, where the full Lieberman-Warner Climate Change Act is implemented; the “Few Options Scenario”, where international offsets are not allowed and where new nuclear production and coal production with CCS are not possible; and the “CCS Scenario”, where Congress enacts the Low Carbon Economy Act, a cap-and-trade system more favorable to coal with CCS.

Under each scenario, we first estimate the total new land area in the U.S. needed to produce energy for each production technique as a function of the amount of energy needed and the land-use intensity of production. We examine the effect of U.S. climate policy on future energy sprawl using energy scenarios based on proposed legislation, building on a body of literature on this topic. Note that our analysis focuses only on U.S. land-use implications, ignoring other, potentially significant international land-use implications of U.S. climate policy. Second, we use available information on where new energy production facilities would be located to partition this area among major habitat types. We calculate the new area directly impacted by energy development within each major habitat type, but do not attempt to predict where within each major habitat type energy development will take place, nor possible indirect effects on land-use regionally or globally due to altered land markets. Our analysis provides a broad overview of what change in the energy sector will mean for area impacted in different natural habitat types, recognizing that such a broad analysis will inevitably have to simplify parts of a complex world.

Read the full article here in PDF format.

Citation: McDonald RI, Fargione J, Kiesecker J, Miller WM, Powell J (2009) Energy Sprawl or Energy Efficiency: Climate Policy Impacts on Natural Habitat for the United States of America. PLoS ONE 4(8): e6802. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0006802

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kazuaki Tsuchiya and Kazuaki Tsuchiya, Professor Paul. Professor Paul said: Energy Sprawl or Energy Efficiency?Climate Policy Impacts on USA Habitats #Environment #Climate #Sustainability #Energy […]

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