The paper uses agent-based modelling (ABM) to assess the sustainability of bioenergy production. The goal is to simulate the impacts of individual forest management activities on forest sustainability at the landscape scale. This approach is necessary because bioenergy production requires large numbers of autonomous private forest owners to provide biomass feedstocks, which then create land-use changes dispersed in complex ways across the landscape. ABM makes it possible to investigate how these individual activities produce sustainability consequences not foreseeable based on examining land-use decisions at the individual level alone. The emergent sustainability phenomena of interest include environmental outcomes (e.g., habitat disconnectivity), economic outcomes (e.g., biomass supply meeting demand), and social outcomes (e.g., society achieving preferred collective management goals). The model incorporates extensive field research in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, USA, an area that is both heavily forested and populated with a high number of private forest owners.
The paper describes how semi-structured interviews with private forest owners and regional land management associations were used to develop a general public survey that informs key model design features, such as the agent decision-making schema and the sustainability criteria used to score outcomes. Model results are then compared to assess the landscape level differences of alternative policy scenarios, such as the introduction of a voluntary incentive scheme to compensate individual forest owners for harvesting biomass. This process of experimental manipulation produces an average result and an estimate of error from repeated runs of the same experimental settings. These aggregated results are then used to compare sustainability impacts across a suite of alternative parameter settings representing potentially competing forest management policies. This work is the first of its kind to use ABM simulation to assess bioenergy sustainability in this way. It is intended to serve as a pilot demonstration of the feasibility of this novel approach with an emphasis on the use of participant design in stakeholder workshops.