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Life Cycle Assessment and Sustainability Session Summaries from SETAC Barcelona

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  • Challenges of Regional and Global Modeling Nitrogen and Phosphorus in Agriculture Supply Chains
    • Aimable Uwizeye (Wageningen University), Camillo De Camillis (FAO), Rogier PO Schulte (Teagasc), Imke JM De Boer (Wageningen University)

      Current life cycle inventory (LCI) databases might drastically underestimate nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) emissions from agriculture due to lack of sound methods on nutrient cycle accounting and site-specific data. Research, therefore, needs to advance and sound methods are necessary to better estimate, for example, nutrient changes in the soil or to account for emissions from nutrient application.

      Five oral presentations and three posters were delivered in this session. The focus of these presentations encompassed both crop and livestock production systems, while the assessment scale ranged from field, to farm and region, to a global perspective. The first presentation given by Adrian Leip (JRC) was about the importance and challenges to account for stock changes in N footprint and N budgets studies at crop or regional level, based on an innovative method, assuming minimum and maximum Nitrogen Use Efficiency (NUE). This method was based on pragmatic solutions to cope with data scarcity. In the case of availability of data on nutrient flows, however, a process-based simulation model for N emissions in LCI analysis was described by Hayo van der Werf (INRA, UMR SAS) to assess impacts of crop production at the scale of a small agricultural catchment. Furthermore, for crops with long lifespans such as oil palm, Lénaïc Pardon (CIRAD) showed that current process-based models are not adapted to assess N balances due to temporal variation in agricultural practices and N dynamics, which implied a need to develop a model for such type of crop. At a farm-level scale, discrepancies in LCI results were shown by Olivier Julliet (University of Michigan), who compared five process-based models to calculate greenhouse gas emissions emissions and C, N and P flows at the individual dairy farm level. Cameron Gourley (Agriculture Victoria, Deptartment of Environment and Primary Industries) demonstrated that in grazing-based dairy systems, N and P use efficiency quantifications had some drawbacks related to substantial temporal and spatial variability of N and P deposited on grassland. At the regional level, Laura Scherer (ETH Zurich) used a life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) method for aquatic eutrophication from P emissions in crop production to highlight the underestimation of P loss in some LCI datasets (e.g., Ecoinvert) and the need to regionalize characterization factors. Globally, the high risk of N and P loads to the environment was identified as a bottleneck to efficient supply and use of N and P. Takashi Yamamoto (Tohoku University) presented global and domestic supply chains of N and P using a substance flow analysis using Japan as a case study and demonstrated how few countries dominate the international market of N and P. To ensure security of supplies and lower national nutrient surplus, N and P should be more efficiently used in agriculture and recycled as much as possible. Finally, strategies to mitigate P and N marine eutrophication using macroalgae production were highlighted by Michele Seghetta (Aarhus University).

      A large audience attended the session. This session was a starting phase towards the harmonization of modeling approaches to ensure transparency and soundness in nutrient accounting, which is one of the objectives of the Livestock Environmental Assessment and Performance (LEAP) Partnership. Harmonization, however, requires innovative approaches and knowledge to deal with identified recalcitrant challenges such as incorporating spatial and temporal variance information into LCI databases of crops. Moreover, such approaches should address knowledge gaps and uncertainty relative to nutrient dynamics in the context of the LEAP Partnership general goals, such as benchmarking and monitoring continuous improvement of livestock supply chains.

      Author’s contact information:

  • Delving Into the Planetary Boundary Concept and Issues Related to Biodiversity and Natural Resources Use in Life Cycle Assessment
    • Benedetto Rugani (Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology), Kevin G. Harding (University of the Witwatersrand,), Llorenç Milà i Canals (United Nations Environment Programme)

      Geopolitical differences can affect access, availability and control between areas where natural resources are extracted. New scenarios of environmental regulations could also limit the exploitation and increase the cost of resources. Most importantly, the impact on the countries that supply natural resources (particularly, but not limited to, Latin America, Africa and Asia/Pacific, which are major mineral producing areas) is not sufficiently investigated. However, these regions rich in natural resources often have a high economic growth rate, and changing land use affects the social and socio-economic aspects of rural and urban areas.

      All these unavoidable constraints require the implementation of policies for sustainable resource management, including the transition to technologies and industrial practices designed to run within a “safe operating space” of planetary boundaries. The latter shall be identified and quantified considering the Earth system dynamics and associated with the planet’s biophysical subsystems or processes. Interactions occur at multiple levels of biotic and abiotic systems, and they remain poorly understood. The current human-induced impact on some of those systems, such as biodiversity, is particularly challenging. In effect, the safe operating space for biodiversity is largely overshot as evidenced by current rates of species extinction.

      Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is potentially a pertinent methodological framework to address these challenges. However, the way LCA currently applies to evaluate and monitor environmental pressures on planetary boundaries is still far from being consensual and operational. For example, different broad approach types for tackling biodiversity have emerged in LCA (based on species abundance, on ecosystem conditions, or on species traits), each of which can answer different questions. However, the characterization of anthropogenic effects on the availability of resources and the dynamics of ecosystems, along with the identification and quantification of hazard thresholds in current Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA) methods, is still too compartment-dependent, limited in scope, and hampered by data inaccessibility. Therefore, a joint combination of LCA with methods from other disciplines seems the most effective solution to overcome methodological challenges and develop consistent approaches for resource management support.

      This session aimed at enlarging the scope of current LCIA practices by moving the discussion towards the combination and the adequacy of LCA with methods that can incorporate the quantification of planetary boundaries, with special focus on biodiversity, land use change, mineral resource and water use – areas representing the priority concerns for humankind in addition to climate change.

      The scientific community responded to the research questions raised by the call for this session with 32 contributions, most of them oriented to present the work as a platform presentation. Due to the interesting contents of the submitted abstracts, we decided to give as much space as possible to the oral presentations. Accordingly, the session was divided into two slots, both containing oral platform (five) and poster spotlight (four) presentations.

      The first slot dealt with those major issues related to biodiversity accounting in LCIA, which was the largest investigated topic by contributors. This was in compliance with current interest revealed by the literature on biodiversity-LCIA, which has been growing fast, both in quality and quantity of studies, over the last few years. These aim to address, in particular, the methodological challenges around the assessment of impacts on biodiversity due to land use change, which is considered one of the major drivers for biodiversity loss.
      In contrast, other scientific contributions focusing on larger (in scope) topics were grouped in the second slot. These studies tried to address newly raised issues linked to the topic of planetary boundaries and to the study of abiotic resource exploitation in LCA.

      Most of the contributions in both slots raised and discussed the general question concerning how new methodological implementations could and shall be incorporated in current LCIA practice. For example, one biodiversity related study proposed to expand forestry practices’ information into several biodiversity score indicators to capture the benefits of responsible forestry practices in LCA, focusing on biodiversity and thus aiding responsibility at a company level. Interestingly, two presentations considered the oil palm industry as a relevant case study to show new developments for LCIA on biodiversity, namely focusing on the incorporation of acoustic diversity indices and nature conservation practices in biodiversity assessment. On one hand, this would enhance the co-existence of complementary indicators to study synergic effects like ecosystem benefits, naturalness (i.e., hemeroby) and services, and not just the impact that can be observed on the investigated species (as proposed for a case study on run-off river hydropower activity where characterization factors were developed for specific species traits). On the other hand, such advances could provide new opportunities to improve the accounting for local species impacts in regionalized assessments, which seems the most suitable rationale to tailor the assessment of biodiversity in LCA. At the same time, speakers also proposed the combination of species–area relationship models and vulnerability score indicators to improve current LCIA practices that face global spatial assessments, as well as the use of integrated ecological models and sustainability tools to characterize the ecosystem services underlying or supporting biodiversity quality. However, a consensual set of methods to evaluate biodiversity in LCA is still far from being reached. This was clearly illustrated by a survey reporting the latest results from the UNEP–SETAC Life Cycle Initiative, which gave an overall understanding of the conditions and requirements for best practices of biodiversity evaluation in LCA based on the land use (change) driver.

      A more conceptual rather than operational orientation underpinned the second part of the session, where the scope was on resource availability and supply security issues. The idea was to provide an outlook for the impact assessment phase of the LCA methodology to incorporate the planetary boundary concept. In this case, although the resource usage and pollution impacts have long motivated development of LCIA methods, the lack of quantitative analyses was most likely due to the still relatively young lines of LCA research on the effect of political and socio-economic factors influencing the criticality of raw materials. Moreover, the planetary boundary concept was only recently introduced in the LCA panorama, mostly to support the establishment of a holistic sustainability analysis framework that could incorporate all the three pillars: economy, society and environment. Nevertheless, interesting insights were raised during the session into the potential of developing countries to supply resources, creating more awareness about the possibility to define and operationalize aggregated indicators for material supply, scarcity and security assessment. Meanwhile, new conceptual definitions and accounting frameworks for LCIA were proposed, for example to revise the rationale behind the definition of area of protection, to adapt the LCA approach on the quantification of the carrying capacity of production systems, to explore the potential of planetary boundaries to set targets on the environmental footprint of nations, and finally to capitalize knowledge on the planetary boundary rationale by discussing its compatibility with the sustainable development concept.

      Major Conclusions of the Session
      With regard to the biodiversity accounting issues, it was confirmed that important efforts have been made in the last few years to foster the development of new methods or improve the state-of-the-art approaches dealing with the assessment of species diversity, in particular with regard to species richness indicators. This effort has not only been performed to increase the resolution of the assessment (e.g., increasing the granularity of the characterization factors and the number of taxa being assessed beyond vascular plants) but also to enrich the scope of the analysis by looking at factors related to biodiversity status, such as landscape heterogeneity, abiotic resource availability and ecosystem services quality. Relevant findings were:

      1. An adaptation of the commonly used potentially disappeared fraction of species indicator on specific weighting factors and indicators that could capture characteristics of wood species not currently valued
      2. A proposition for the use of acoustic diversity and dissimilarity indices for the description of alpha and beta diversity
      3. An observation of the effects and methodological benefits of including nature conservation practices in land use change modeling, an approach that could be interesting for companies to offset their impacts
      4. An improvement to the method of species richness assessment based on species–area relationship that could include other specific attributes (such as species affinity to natural habitat) to expand current regional assessments to the global loss assessment
      5. A survey from the UNEP–SETAC Life Cycle Initiative aimed at building consensus on impact indicators for biodiversity assessment in LCA. This would guarantee operability of models and methods through the agreement of key elements in the impact pathway from land use to biodiversity loss based on a screening of different criteria such as completeness in scope, biodiversity representation, scientific quality, applicability, acceptance, etc. However, the optimization of those criteria seems far from being reached.

      Concerning the second part of the session, we conclude that including the geopolitical dimension in LCA analysis through material supply and security indicators is a challenging issue as it would address the problem of material scarcity from a broader perspective. However, operational and consensual methods still need to be developed to assess materials criticality. Rather, quantitative examples on how to account for the planetary boundary were given for the case of eutrophication and terrestrial acidification. It is worth remarking that the topic of planetary boundary has only been investigated in the field of LCA for a really short time, and therefore a lower number of contributions could have been selected and evaluated. We do expect, however, that literature will grow on this subject in the near future, likely generating concrete examples, quantitative models and operational tools to advance the methodological approach to the study of safe operating spaces, and the qualitative understanding and incorporation in LCA of the thresholds of irreversibility.

      Authors’ contact information:, and

  • Prospective Life Cycle Thinking Approaches for the Definition and Implementation of Sustainability Strategies in Industry and Policy Making
    • Mélanie Guiton and Enrico Benetto (Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology)

      Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is recognized as an assessment tool for the design of products and technologies and the environmental communication of their performances. In order to facilitate access to LCA to industrial practitioners and policy makers, several initiatives have emerged to develop supporting guidelines and simplified tools. However, the use of these guidelines and tools in a broader life cycle framework to evaluate sustainable business strategies and policies involving products and technologies is not trivial. The overall scale, the decision context and the scope of the assessment can push the guidelines and simplified tools in unrealistic directions. While attributional LCA is common practice in industrial activities, LCA alone is often insufficient to enable the company to define business strategies. LCA can lead to fact-based information on a system but does not provide clear guidelines to follow in the definition of sustainability targets. Eco-design supporting tools often lack analysis of other criteria, such as quality, cost and time constraints, which may complicate the decision-making process. To this aim, multidisciplinary skills are required to properly address the definition of sustainability strategies, which are often unavailable. In many instances, these requirements hamper the overall implementation of life cycle strategies in industry and policy making. The aim of the session was to discuss the research and development opportunities of improving assessment oriented (e.g., LCA) guidelines and simplified tools, and combining them with goal-oriented approaches for the definition of sustainability strategies in industry and policy making.

      The overall session included 11 platform presentations and 30 posters, four of which were presented during the poster spotlight. The platform presentations were based on experiences conducted by researchers with industrial partners. Presenters discussed the shortcomings of current Life Cycle Thinking practices and tools, such as the advantages and limitations issued from the Product Environmental Footprint pilot phase presented by Annekatrin Lehmann (Technische Universitaet Berlin). Several specific aspects related to each step of LCA were also discussed through concrete case studies, illustrating the use of the LCA methodology used in support of decision-making processes. First, James Fava (PE INTERNATIONAL, Inc.) proposed a qualitative analytical approach in order for industries or public stakeholder to identify priority hotspots for further investigations. Hayo van der Werf (INRA) discussed the critical aspects of the functional unit and its representativeness. Koldo Saez de Bikuña (Technical University of Denmark) demonstrated through the case of indirect land use change the importance of system boundaries, especially when the system depends on policy implementation and its consequences at a global scale. Simona Scalbi (ENEA) discussed the complexity of modeling a relevant Life Cycle Inventory for innovative products, illustrating the talk with the case of nanomaterials. Cécile Bulle (ESG UQÀM) proposed an approach based on the competition between resources requirement and resources availability in order to improve the characterization of impacts on resources when assessing. Maria Balouktsi (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology) used a case study related to the use of LCA in the building sector in order to point out the sensitivity of results interpretation by the various stakeholders of the building who are non-LCA experts. The two final speakers presented their analysis on several approaches for assessing uncertainties. Jean-Denis Mathias (IRSTEA) demonstrated the reliability theory of the FORM method and Monte Carlo analysis. Julie Clavreul (Unilever) highlighted the complexity of uncertainties assessment and interpretation in the industry. Also, Carme Hidalgo (LEITAT Technological Center) presented the positive outcomes of LCA application along a full product value chain using the publishing sector as an example.

      The presentations of the session showed that there are significant ongoing initiatives aiming at harmonizing LCA approaches to support industrial and public stakeholders’ decision-making processes. It has been observed that simplifying and streamlining the LCA approach for a better understanding by non-expert stakeholders leads to interesting questioning and developments regarding each stage of LCA methodology. The talks highlighted a few key issues which should receive the highest priority in further developments: How to properly characterize functionality (especially the integration of customer perspective) in order to assure comparability; methodological challenges related to LCI (in particular, consistent setting of system boundaries between products and sectors); impacts assessment (namely the consistent choice of midpoint and endpoint categories to be communicated to stakeholders); and finally the interpretation of results including uncertainties consideration. There is evidence that the communication of LCA results is still problematic and that decision-making processes are still often driven by other decision criteria. The inefficient communication of LCA results certainly hampers the integration of LCA with other decision support tools.

      Authors’ Contact Information: and

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