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Sustainably managing limited resources, such as productive land areas and available freshwater, will be one of the world's most pressing challenges in the coming years. Population increases and economic growth will significantly influence humanity's future demand for land and water for different uses. In particular, changes in food and energy use will have substantial environmental impacts. They will also influence each other in many ways. At the same time, the production of food and energy, and the water resources they require, will be affected by global climate change. Sustainability issues arising from competition and synergies between future production of bioenergy and food, and related water use, are highly important in this context.
Population growth is one of the factors contributing to increased demand for land and water. While the world's population has approximately doubled since the 1960s, global economic activity has increased approximately 40 fold. Since growth in incomes is strongly correlated with increased consumption of animal-derived food (meat, milk, eggs), the combination of population increases and economic growth will likely result in increased feed and food production. This will drive up pressures on land and water resources if not counteracted by innovations that reduce land and water use. Social inequities are increasing as well, with both very rich and very poor populations often practicing ‘inefficient’ methods of using land and water.
Historically, economic development has been strongly correlated with increasing energy use and growth of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Renewable energy (RE) can help decouple that correlation, contributing to sustainable development (SD). In addition, RE offers the opportunity to improve access to modern energy services for the poorest members of society, which is crucial for the achievement of any single of the eight Millennium Development Goals.
Theoretical concepts of SD can provide useful frameworks to assess the interactions between SD and RE. SD addresses concerns about relationships between human society and nature. Traditionally, SD has been framed in the three-pillar model—Economy, Ecology, and Society—allowing a schematic categorization of development goals, with the three pillars being interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Within another conceptual framework, SD can be oriented along a continuum between the two paradigms of weak sustainability and strong sustainability. The two paradigms differ in assumptions about the substitutability of natural and human-made capital. RE can contribute to the development goals of the three-pillar model and can be assessed in terms of both weak and strong SD, since RE utilization is defined as sustaining natural capital as long as its resource use does not reduce the potential for future harvest.
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