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Bio-LCA: Introducing biodiversity in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

Final Report Summary - BIO-LCA (Bio-LCA: Introducing biodiversity in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA))

Project "Bio-LCA: Introducing biodiversity in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)" aimed at finding improved methods to calculate biodiversity impacts from land use in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). The project started on April 1st 2013, and ran until March 31st 2015, and was conducted by Dr. Ricardo Teixeira (hereby referred to as “researcher”) under supervision from the scientist in charge of the project's coordinator, Prof. Dr. Reinhart Ceulemans (hereby referred to as “supervisor”), at the University of Antwerp.

LCA is a methodology used to quantify potential environmental impacts in the entire life cycle of a product or service, starting at raw material acquisition, production, use, and eventually its disposal. Today, LCA is used for sustainability benchmarks or comparisons of products in the framework of investment decision, product development or even contracting subcontractors. More recently, the European Commission (EC) elected LCA as the method to calculate environmental indicators for comparisons between products and organizations. LCA is a crucial part of the transition to a green economy, and the privileged method for calculations of environmental impacts. Product labelling, using LCA, is coming closer to a reality as the French Government finished its pilot phase and the European Commission started its own pilot projects. Biodiversity impacts risk being left out of these programs if valid methodologies are not found meanwhile.

Limitations in LCA methodology have thus far restricted the inclusion in its framework of LCA indicators for biophysical environmental impacts such as land use, ecosystem services and biodiversity. Biodiversity and ecosystem services are either left outside the scope of most LCA studies or they are considerably lacking in accuracy. Despite its advances and the body of work already compiled for biodiversity, LCA features many methodological shortcomings when dealing with biological indicators. Due to its historical roots, LCA is particularly suited to account for inflows and outflows of substances from processes and products, i.e. for substance emissions. That brings major limitations in scope and usability. LCA does not deal well with effects that are (1) dynamic, i.e. non-constant in time, (2) scale-dependent, i.e. vary in location, (3) non-linear, e.g. mutually reinforcing impacts in different categories, and (4) hard to quantify unambiguously.

Initiating a dialogue with experts in the fields of Biology and Ecology is crucial to improve LCA methods for biodiversity. As initially planned, the strategy employed in this project began with assembling a network of partnerships consisting of researchers interested in the subject, including those outside the LCA community, as well as stakeholders. The researcher contacted a group of close collaborators within the host institution and of peers within Europe and the United States of America. These collaborations resulted in published and ongoing work with significant outreach. The researcher was invited to participate in UNEP/SETAC's Life Cycle Initiative flagship project on impact assessment indicators as part of the taskforce on land use impacts on biodiversity. As part of this task force, the researcher co-organized two scientific events that brought together LCA practitioners, conservationists, ecologists, policy-makers and stakeholders. In conclusion, the first task of ‘Bio-LCA’ has been particularly successful, since the network that the researcher has been working with greatly surpasses initial expectations.

The researcher also published a total of ten articles during the two years of the fellowship. Four of these articles (one is currently accepted for publication with minor revisions) were published in ISI/SJR journals and are directly about biodiversity in LCA. One was the first publication on biodiversity impact assessment in LCA to cross over to a Biology journal, namely Global Change Biology (Souza et al., 2015, from the list provided in a later section of the report). Two other articles were published by the journal Chemical Engineering Transactions (see section 3 of the report). The first (Teixeira, 2014a) is a review of how the issue of biodiversity is incorporated into the LCA framework. The second publication (Teixeira, 2014b) presents a proposal for the incorporation of different macro-ecological models in LCA impact assessment methods. These two articles helped the researcher conceive new approaches to tackle the problem, and pave the way for methodological proposals (currently under development) that culminated with operational models to calculate impacts on biodiversity from land use and land use change. The fourth article includes recommendations from the UNEP/SETAC task force for future developments in impact assessment models. The researcher also presented at various conferences work that will lead in the near future to other publications, which will cover a globally applicable method and another method at the regional scale that focus specifically in the region of Flanders in Belgium (where the host institution is located). Six more articles are expected to be submitted after the end of the project but will depict work done and presented at scientific events during the fellowship tenure. Further, the researcher published other scientific articles on LCA or biodiversity and two papers in conference proceedings. Consequently, in terms of overall scientific production, the initial expectations were also surpassed.

In terms of outreach and communication of results, the researcher presented his work at the 8th Conference on Sustainable Development of Energy, Water and Environment Systems (SDEWES), which took place between 22 and 27 of September 2013 in Dubrovnik (Croatia), in the LCA XIII Conference, from 1-3 October 2013 in Orlando, Florida (USA), at the 7th Planta Europa Conference, 21-26 May 2014, Crete (Greece), at the 2014 Natural Resource Modelling Conference, 8 – 11 July 2014, Vilnius (Lithuania), at the SETAC 20th LCA Case Study Symposium, 24-26 November 2014, Novi Sad, Serbia and at the Biosymposium 2015: The Functions and Values of Biodiversity, 6-7 January 2015, Oxford, UK. A total of ten communications (six as oral presentations and four as posters) resulting from ‘Bio-LCA’ were presented at these events. Overall, the expectations for communication of activities and results have been far exceeded.

A webpage (https://www.uantwerpen.be/en/rg/pleco/research/research-projects/marie-curie-fellowsh/project-biolca/) lodged at the host institution’s website has been established to disseminate the project, as part of the outreach activities. Lodging at the host institution is guaranteed for the future. Besides a description of the activities conducted during the project and a list of downloadable deliverables, the page includes many resources for LCA researchers in the area of biodiversity indicators, such as links to important references.

After achieving all its goals and in many cases going beyond the intentions at the start, the work conducted during this project is of interest to LCA practitioners as well as conservationists and ecologists. Using LCA can help determine off-site impacts on biodiversity, avoiding leakage effects and assigning responsibility for damages to final products. The outcome of the project ‘Bio-LCA’, as a contribution to these goals, will have long-lasting consequences in the field of LCA and beyond.