A new brief prepared by the JRC explains how Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) can be used to monitor, evaluate and forecast potential environmental impacts of bioeconomy sectors and the use of bio-based commodities in order to ensure that the bioeconomy operates within safe ecological limits.
Different modelling principles are used to develop approaches suitable for a broad range of contexts and scales, from evaluating the environmental impacts of single bio-based commodities to those of strategic policy decisions.
The brief, published by the European Commission's Knowledge Centre for Bioeconomy* (KCB), reviews the possible application of different LCA approaches in the context of the bioeconomy.
On the one hand, activities in the bioeconomy sectors rely on healthy ecosystems to ensure primary production of biomass, and on the other hand, they risk damaging these same ecosystems. It is therefore necessary to monitor, evaluate and forecast environmental impacts associated with the expansion of bioeconomy sectors and the use of bio-based commodities in order to minimise and manage negative impacts on natural capital.
LCA is a structured, comprehensive and internationally standardised method that aims to assess the potential environmental impacts associated with a product, a process or a system throughout its life cycle, from extraction of its raw materials to its end of life.
Different LCA approaches
Two main modelling principles are in use in LCA practice. Attributional LCA (A-LCA) assesses the environmental impacts associated with all stages in the life cycle of a product, a process or a system, from cradle to grave (i.e. from raw material extraction through processing, manufacture, distribution, use, etc.). Consequential LCA (C-LCA) identifies the consequences of a decision within one system on other systems and processes of the economy.
Attributional LCA can be applied for benchmarking products and checking compliance with regulatory requirements, e.g. for assessing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with biofuels compared to those of fossil fuels in order to evaluate compliance with the Renewable Energy Directive.
An open database with attributional LCA results for bio-based commodities, calculated or assembled by the JRC, is available on the KCB website. The recently updated Bioeconomy Strategy will help generate more and higher quality data.
LCA models can also use elements of consequential thinking to assess the impacts of strategic policy decisions. This is particularly the case for studies that aim to assess large-scale impacts on the overall economy, as these usually rely on economic models that cover multiple sectors of the economy, large geographic scales, and all relevant ecological processes.
In order to avoid misinterpretation, practitioners need to carefully define the model, conduct the assessment and ensure that the approach followed is appropriate for the goal and scope of the assessment. This needs to be validated through sensitivity and uncertainty propagation analyses. Practitioners should also clarify the limitations of the study and of recommendations made in order to avoid generalisation of conclusions beyond the goal and scope of the study.
Despite their uncertainties and limitations, life-cycle-based approaches provide the most comprehensive, structured, consistent and robust way of assessing the environmental performance of bio-based products and systems within safe ecological limits.
* The JRC coordinates the Knowledge Centre for Bioeconomy, which brings together knowledge and scientific evidence from within and outside of the European Commission in a transparent, tailored and concise manner, to inform policymaking on the bioeconomy.
- Brief on Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) for the assessment of environmental impacts of the bioeconomy
- European Commission's Knowledge Centre for Bioeconomy
- Knowledge Centre for Bioeconomy infographic
- JRC database of LCA results for bio-based commodities
- 22 Mai 2019