Accounting for effects of carbon flows in LCA of biomass-based products—exploration and evaluation of a selection of existing methods
Journal article, 2018
Purpose Life cycle assessment (LCA) has become one of the most widespread environmental assessment tools during the last two decades. However, there are still impacts that are not yet fully integrated, including climate impacts of land use. This study contributes to the development process by testing a selection of recently proposed climate impacts assessment methods, some more focused on the impact of land use and others more focused on a product’s carbon life cycle. Methods Several assessment methods have been proposed in recent years, with their development still being in progress. Of these methods, we selected three methods that are more focused on the product’s carbon life cycle, and two methods more focused on the impact of land use. We applied the methods to an LCA study comparing biomass-based polyethylene (PE) packaging via different production routes in order to identify their methodological and practical challenges. Results and discussion We found that including the impact of land use and carbon cycles had a profound effect on the results for global warming impact potential. It changed the ranking among the different routes for PE production, sometimes making biomass-based PE worse than the fossil alternative. Especially, the methods accounting for long time lags between carbon emissions and uptake in forestry punished the wood-based routes. Moreover, the variation in the results was considerable, showing that although assessment methods for climate impact can be applied to biomass-based products, their outcomes are not yet robust. Conclusions We recommend efforts to harmonize and reconcile different approaches for the assessment of climate impact of biomass-based products with regard to (1) how they consider time, (2) their applicability to both short and long rotation crops and (3) harmonization of concepts and terms used by the methods. We further recommend that all value laden methodological choices that are built into the methods, such as the choice of reference states/points, are made explicit and that the outcomes of different modelling choices are tested.
Life cycle assessment