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Improving Life Cycle analysis tools for sustainability assessment in forestry, agriculture and environment technologies

Final Report Summary - ECOTOOL (Improving Life Cycle analysis tools for sustainability assessment in forestry, agriculture and environment technologies)

During 30 months, the ECOTOOL project gathered 5 institutions, ie 3 in Europe (Montpellier Supagro and Cemagref- IRSTEA in France, SYKE in Finland) and 2 out of Europe (University of Sydney and University of New South Wales in Australia). The “scientific objective” was to develop new tools in the frame of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) for a better assessment of the environmental and social impact of various processes in forestry, agriculture and environmental technologies. This included (i) developing methods for more user-friendly LCA assessment processes, (ii) tools for improving LCA impact indicators (eg related to soil quality), and (iii) applying methods in particular to bioenergy production. The “transfer of knowledge” objective was to help to develop in France a first large-scale research and higher education structure dedicated to LCA and to Sustainable Production and Consumption assessment for bio-based products and services, through the experience of Finland and Australia. This included scientists cross exchanges, organisation of seminars, teaching and of a final international conference.

The main outcomes of the ECOTOOL projects are the following:

- LCA applied to agricultural systems.
A new concept has been proposed to streamline data acquisition in LCA applied to agricultural systems, which is classically said the most difficult task. It consists in using the traceability data which are compulsorily or voluntary collected in the food chain, due to the European Regulation (eg EC regulation N° 852/2004, ie the “Food Hygiene Package” [1]) or to compliance to quality labels, CAP and supermarket requirements. Another important driver is the development of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), among them of smartphones (+ 150% growth in one year in agriculture) which will ease up data acquisition in agriculture. This concept has been validated on vineyard. Two reports have been written and proposed for publication [2, 3]. These outputs could lead to new services, such as supplying farmers with a LCA of their products, based on traceability data, or supplying international databases (ILCD from JRC for instance) with additional data.

Another bottleneck of LCA in agriculture is that relevant impact indicators are still lacking in agriculture, such as water and land use which have only been taken into account recently (2009) and must still be improved. For instance, for land use, it is relevant to more precisely know the quality of the soil, ie the carbon content (C) which is related to fertility and C sequestration capacity. The ECOTOOL project has explored the feasibility of Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIR) to measure C measurement in soil. A bibliographic review on NIR and MIR spectroscopy applied to C measurement has been carried out in order to point out the strengths and weaknesses of this technique [4]. Then, the chemometric tools for processing soil NIR spectra in order to get C amounts have been thoroughly analyzed and improvements have been proposed [5]. Finally, a method for removing the effect of soil moisture on C estimation obtained from spectra has been built up [6]. This work has been the opportunity to build up a common project including Cemagref –IRSTEA, the University of Sydney and other French partners and supported by ADEME. The expected social outputs are (i) the design of portable sensors to measure the soil C content in order to know the amount of sequestrated C and (ii) the refinement of the land use impact, in order to have more precise LCA outputs.

- LCA for sustainability assessment in bio-energy production
In ECOTOOL, we focused on the assessment of the environmental and social impacts of forest- and algal-based biofuels [7]. Regarding environmental assessment, the biodiesel from forest residues is able to reach the 60% emission reduction target set by the Renewable Energy Source directive for year 2018 for biofuels produced in installations starting on or after 1 January 2017, but only if the emissions due to the decrease of soil carbon stock change are excluded. For algae biodiesel, the emission reduction as compared to fossil fuels is even lower but, due to lack of actual process data, highly uncertain. Also, we did not take into account the various ecosystemic and cultural services that a forest may render.

With regard to the social side of sustainability, a general framework for assessing the social impacts of bioenergy production has been set up, based on a bibliographic analysis. This framework considers different levels of concern about impacts of bioenergy production (i.e. company, municipality, state) since social LCA has potentially different characteristics with the three levels. The company or a group of companies forms an informal network, cooperative group or a joint venture processing biomass for energy. Municipalities wish to assess the social impacts (mainly at the scale of the close region) of the value-added chains. Energy production at state-level concerns not only company-level choices within different industries and the solutions made in municipalities within different regions, but also the decisions of the usage of energy based on imported sources, and the consequences for countries abroad. This framework has been applied to virtual chains of biofuel production from forest or algae.

These results are to be used by public deciders to choose appropriate biofuel production chains, with regard to their environmental &social as well as economic performances.

- Transfer of knowledge
In ECOTOOL, remarkable efforts have been put on knowledge transfer, either through seminars, courses and research schools (in France and Australia) as well as conferences (in France and Finland). The most significant conferences initiated by ECOTOOL have been held in 2011:
* 5-6 May 2011: International Seminar on Social LCA: recent development of social assessment of product lifecycle- Montpellier, Fr (http://social-lca-2011.cirad.fr/) – 110 attendants
* 30 Nov- 2 Dec 2011: Ecotech&Tools: Environmental and Integrated Assessment of Complex Systems, Montpellier, Fr (http://www.ecotech-tools.org) – 170 attendants
ECOTOOL has permitted 27 months or researcher exchanges involving 10 different researchers from the 5 institutes. The challenge of creating a strong unit in France on LCA has been met with the rapid strengthening of the ELSA group (Environmental Lifecycle Sustainability Assessment).
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