The bioeconomy is not only important for creating jobs and growth, but also for addressing environmental challenges. For instance, replacing fossil-based fuels and materials with certain sustainable biofuels and bio-based materials can have the potential to reduce GHG emissions and fossil-fuel dependency. Applying adequate sustainability criteria is important for this. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a key approach to assess the environmental benefits of the bioeconomy. It takes into account the full life cycle of a product, including the supply of raw materials, processing, transport, retail, use, as well as end-of-life waste management.
Life cycle thinking
Life cycle thinking (LCT) is a leading principle for assessing supply chains in a holistic way. LCT includes environmental, social, and economic considerations. It accounts for raw material extraction and conversion, manufacture and distribution, use and/or consumption. It ends with consideration of re-use, recycling of materials, energy recovery and ultimate disposal.
A key aim of Life Cycle Thinking is to avoid burden shifting. This typically means minimising impacts at one stage of a product life cycle, or in a geographic region, or in a particular impact category (e.g. climate change, resource depletion, ecotoxicity, etc.), while avoiding increases elsewhere. For example, this can mean saving energy during the use phase of a product, while not increasing the amount of material needed to provide it or the complexity of the product to effectively recycle it.
Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)
LCA aims to assess all relevant flows of consumed resources and pollutant emissions associated with any goods or services (‘products’) in order to quantify the related environmental and health impacts and resource-depletion issues. LCA considers the entire life cycle of a product, from raw material extraction and acquisition, through energy and material production and manufacturing, to use and end-of-life treatment and final disposal. It is a structured, comprehensive and internationally standardised method.
LCA is implemented in four phases: goal and scope definition, inventory assessment, impact assessment, and interpretation. It has a recursive nature: the interpretation of the preliminary results helps refining the first three phases towards the final results.
An inventory is compiled for each of the stages in a product's life cycle, for instance for the extraction of raw material, the manufacturing stage, the distribution etc. This life cycle inventory consists of the resources consumed and the emissions into air, water and soil that are attributable to the product or organisation being assessed. For instance, this can be the CO2 emissions from the production of a food container.
In the life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) phase, the inventory is analysed using various indicators of environmental, human health, as well as resource impacts. Environmental burdens include, for example, acid rain, summer smog, and climate change.
For further information on LCA methods, data, reports and other tools see European Platform for Life Cycle Assessment.
Procedural steps of LCA
Defining the goal and scope of the study includes the definition of a functional unit to express the results related to a specific product (e.g. one Megajoule of biodiesel) and the system boundaries, namely what is included in the study. After having set the goal and scope, for each stage of the product life cycle (e.g. resource extraction, manufacturing, use etc.) data on emissions into the environment (e.g. CO2, ammonia (NH3), etc.) and resources used (e.g. land, water, oil, metals etc.) are collected in the life cycle inventory (LCI).
During the life cycle impact assessment (LCIA), these emissions and resources are evaluated on their impacts. For instance, the impact of CO2 emissions on climate change is evaluated, and the use of scarce resources are assessed. The calculation of these indicators is usually facilitated using standard lists of default factors, which are included in the many software tools available to support LCA implementation. The impact on different impact categories may then be associated with three areas of protection (AoP): human health, ecosystem health and natural resources.
During the interpretation the output of steps 1-3 is summarized, interpreted and communicated. The interpretation feeds back into the previous phases as LCA usually as an iterative process.For further information on LCA methods, data, reports and other tools see European Platform for Life Cycle Assessment.
Different LCA approaches
Attributional LCA (A-LCA) aims to assess environmental impacts associated with all stages of a product’s life from cradle to grave (i.e. from raw material extraction through materials processing, manufacture, distribution, use, etc.). Attributional modelling makes use of historical, fact-based, average and measureable data of known (or at least knowable) uncertainty and includes all the processes that are identified to relevantly contribute to the system being studied.
Advanced A-LCA looks beyond the immediate system boundaries by comparing multiple systems (‘counterfactuals’). For instance, when assessing the potential environmental impacts of a bio-based commodity, it should be considered that the biomass feedstock and the land cover on which it is grown are limited resources. Therefore, multiple systems should be compared to partially integrate market-mediated effects to get a better picture of the potential risks associated with the bio-based commodity. Advanced A-LCA also takes into account additional GHG and environmental indicators.
Consequential LCA (C-LCA) identifies the consequences that a decision in the foreground system has for other processes and systems of the economy, both in the analysed system’s background system and on other systems outside the boundaries. It models the studied system around these consequences. The consequential life cycle model is hence not reflecting the actual (or forecast) specific or average supply chain. Instead, it models a hypothetical, generic supply chain that is modelled according to market mechanisms, and potentially includes political interactions and consumer behaviour changes. Secondary consequences may counteract the primary consequences (then called ‘rebound effects’) or further enhance the preceding consequence.
LCA results explained
Typical results of comparison of two or more products or the comparison of the production from different biomass sources or different ways of production may be presented by highlighting the relative performance in each impact category. For example, if we compare the environmental impacts of the production of the polyesters PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates) from corn starch cultivated in Germany and from sugar cane grown in Brazil we obtain the figure below. For most categories the system based on corn starch results in higher impacts than for sugar cane, mainly due to the lower agricultural efficiency of the corn system (crop yield).
Source: Cristobal et al., 2016
A hotspot analysis can show which kind of impacts occur at which stage of the life cycle. Below is an example of a hotspot analysis for the food consumption of an average citizen in one year (representative food basket). The agricultural phase of the life cycle has the greatest environmental burden in most of the impact categories, followed by processing and logistics.
JRC LCA activities in bioeconomy
The JRC has been applying attributional LCA (A-LCA) including advanced A-LCA and consequential LCA (C-LCA) approaches in several contexts and projects, such as within the Bioeconomy Observatory and the Biomass project.
Attributional LCA (A-LCA):
Castellani, V., Sala, S., Benini, L. 2017. 'Hotspots analysis and critical interpretation of food life cycle assessment studies for selecting eco-innovation options and for policy support. Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 140, pp. 556-568.
Corrado, S., Ardente, F., Sala, S., Saouter, E. 2017. ‘Modelling of food loss within life cycle assessment: From current practice towards a systematisation’. Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 140, pp. 847–859.
Czyrnek-Delêtrea, M.M., Rocca, S., Agostini, A., Giuntoli, J., Murphy, J.D. 2017. ‘Life cycle assessment of seaweed biomethane, generated from seaweed sourced from integrated multi-trophic aquaculture in temperate oceanic climates’. Applied Energy, vol. 196, pp. 34–50.
Notarnicola, B., Sala, S., Anton, A., J. McLaren, S., Saouter, E., Sonesson, U. 2017. ‘The role of life cycle assessment in supporting sustainable agri-food systems: A review of the challenges’. Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 140, pp. 399–409.
Sala, S., Anton, A., J. McLaren, S., Notarnicola, B., Saouter, E., Sonesson, U. 2017. ‘In quest of reducing the environmental impacts of food production and consumption’. Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 140, pp. 387–398.
Serra, P., Giuntoli, J., Agostini, A., Colauzzi, M., Amaducci, S. 2017. ‘Coupling sorghum biomass and wheat straw to minimise the environmental impact of bioenergy production’. Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 154, pp. 242–254.
Giuntoli, J., Caserini, S., Marelli, L., Baxter, D., Agostini, A. 2015. ‘Domestic heating from forest logging residues: environmental risks and benefits’. Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 99, pp. 206-216.
Aracil, C., Haro, P., Giuntoli, J., Ollero, P. 2017. ‘Proving the climate benefit in the production of biofuels from municipal solid waste refuse in Europe’. Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 142-4, pp. 2887–2900.
Consequential LCA (C-LCA):
The JRC is developing an integrated modelling framework (IMF) that implements C-LCA and will allow policy impact assessment once it is fully implemented.