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RELIability of product Environmental Footprints

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - RELIEF (RELIability of product Environmental Footprints)

Reporting period: 2017-01-01 to 2018-12-31

The main goal of the European Industrial Doctorate proposal RELIEF, a cooperation between Radboud University and Unilever, is to train early stage researchers to consider how to assess and improve the reliability of product environmental footprints. There are five focus areas for improving the accuracy of footprint analyses that have been identified in RELIEF, which are addressed in five individual Early Stage Researcher (ESR) projects (see Figure 1). These concern environmental impacts of (i) energy use, (ii) water consumption, (iii) chemicals, (iv) land use, and macro-scale strategic decisions in materials sourcing. The research and training activities performed within RELIEF, showed how new methods can be developed and applied to quantify various types of variability (spatial, temporal, consumer, producer) and uncertainty in environmental footprint analysis. The research highlights the large variability in product footprints and the large differences in consumer behaviour. Our findings also show that a quantitative understanding of sources of variability and uncertainty is important to formulate practical recommendations to reduce environmental footprints.
How can consumers effectively reduce their environmental footprint of everyday activities, such as showering and doing the laundry? How can farmers reduce the environmental footprint of crop production? What are the main drivers of variability between biodiversity footprints of nations and how can these footprints be reduced? What sources of uncertainty need to be addressed and prioritised to better understand the chemical footprint of consumer products? The RELIEF project not only answers these questions, but also provides tools to deal with the same type of questions for the large portfolio of products and services that are used in our society.

The energy ESR focused on quantifying the variability in greenhouse gas (GHG) footprints of energy-intensive consumer activities. First, the variability in GHG footprints of washing clothes associated with various detergent-related and washing machine-related parameters was quantified across 23 European countries. Second, a stochastic model was developed to quantify the energy, GHG and water consumption footprints of showering in four different countries. The most influential reasoned choices are the water heater type and showerhead flow rate, while shower duration is a habitual behaviour with the largest influence on the environmental footprints.
The water ESR demonstrated how data-driven methodologies are an important asset to develop spatial hydrological data at a global scale. First, a global-scale regression model was developed and tested to quantify mean annual streamflows (MAF), based on physiography and climate variables. MAFs were predicted at the global scale, which is essential for assessments of global water supply, ecosystem integrity and water footprints. In a further step, a consistent global streamflow dataset at a resolution of 30 arc seconds was created (FLO1K). These data are essential for freshwater ecology and water resources analyses at a global scale and yet high spatial resolution.
The chemical ESR developed models to predict chemical emissions from the use of down-the-drain personal care products (PCPs), which are washed off after use. In a first study, chemical emissions from wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) were estimated with a newly developed methodology, based on consumer use surveys of PCPs. The second study was aimed at better understanding the drivers of variability in reported removal efficiencies (REs) from activated sludge WWTPs. A meta-analysis on RE data assessed the drivers of the variability relating to the properties of those chemicals and the operational parameters of activated sludge WWTPs.
The land ESR focused on quantifying the variability in GHG footprints of agricultural activities. The influence of bio-physical conditions on GHG footprints of field tomato production in a number of countries around the globe over three years was quantified using multi-level variability and regression analysis. The majority of the variance was caused by differences in farm-management practices. The second study considered palm oil production in Indonesia as a case study to investigate drivers of GHG footprints in a spatially explicit manner. It was found that GHG emissions can be reduced through better landscape management, improving yields and mill operations.
The macro-scale ESR quantified the biodiversity footprint of nations with three alpha diversity indicators and one indicator of gamma diversity. Although all footprints are positively correlated with rising household expenditure, this relationship is weaker and highly uncertain for gamma-based footprints. The results highlight the relevance of including both alpha and gamma diversity indicators in land-based biodiversity footprint calculations.

Dissemination occurred to a broad audience. So far, RELIEF project produced 8 peer-reviewed published articles and over 20 presentations at conferences. Three outreach workshops were organised within the project framework along with newsletters and media announcements. These were published at the RELIEF website, distributed through networks of researchers working in the RELIEF project and shared on social media sites: Linkedin and Researchgate. As a result of collaboration between Radboud University and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, a two-week summer school was organised. Results of the project were made publicly available through open access databases of GreenDelta – providers of the open source software OpenLCA.
The RELIEF has delivered impact in the following areas:

(i) Improved understanding of uncertainty and variability of footprinting across a range of products and impact categories.

(ii) Enhanced knowledge relevant for key global challenges such as deforestation (assessment of palm oil production in Indonesia), sustainable agriculture (assessment of 26 key fruit, vegetable and commodity crops grown globally), freshwater availability (hydrological modelling), sustainable consumption (land use and biodiversity footprinting of global trade), climate change (footprints of energy consuming products in the home), chemical pollution (approaches for chemical footprinting). Dissemination of the methods and models developed in relation to these key global challenges will facilitate broad uptake and thereby contribute to deeper insights and better decision making.

(iii) Enhanced career prospects of the fellows. RELIEF has provided them with high level skills in science-based environmental footprinting and complementary skills such, project and team management skills, communication and presentation skills, creativity and entrepreneurship and a multidisciplinary outlook and commercial mindset. They have been exposed to both academia and the private sector via secondments and intersectoral visits. This has provided them with hands-on experience with academic and industry-driven research and the skills to develop and manage an integrated research project taking advantage of the complementarities and synergies between both environments. This will increase their ability to transfer between institutions and sectors in their careers.

(iv) Consolidation of long-term collaboration between the academic and the industrial partners of the consortium.