Main content area

Inclusion of soil erosion impacts in life cycle assessment on a global scale: application to energy crops in Spain

Núñez, Montserrat, Antón, Assumpció, Muñoz, Pere, Rieradevall, Joan
international journal of life cycle assessment 2013 v.18 no.4 pp. 755-767
carbon, case studies, ecosystem services, ecosystems, edaphic factors, energy crops, environmental impact, human health, humans, inventories, land use, life cycle inventory, models, product life cycle, soil erosion, soil resources, topsoil, uncertainty, Spain
PURPOSE: Despite the fundamental role of ecosystem goods and services in sustaining human activities, there is no harmonized and internationally agreed method for including them in life cycle assessment (LCA). The main goal of this study was to develop a globally applicable and spatially resolved method for assessing land use impacts on the erosion regulation ecosystem service. METHODS: Soil erosion depends much on location. Thus, unlike conventional LCA, the endpoint method was regionalized at the grid cell level (5 arcmin, approximately 10 × 10 km²) to reflect the spatial conditions of the site. Spatially explicit characterization factors were not further aggregated at broader spatial scales. RESULTS AND DISCUSSION: Life cycle inventory data of topsoil and topsoil organic carbon (SOC) losses were interpreted at the endpoint level in terms of the ultimate damage to soil resources and ecosystem quality. Human health damages were excluded from the assessment. The method was tested on a case study of five 3-year agricultural rotations, two of them with energy crops, grown in several locations in Spain. A large variation in soil and SOC losses was recorded in the inventory step, depending on climatic and edaphic conditions. The importance of using a spatially explicit model and characterization factors is shown in the case study. CONCLUSIONS: The regionalized assessment takes into account the differences in soil erosion-related environmental impacts caused by the great variability of soils. Taking this regionalized framework as the starting point, further research should focus on testing the applicability of the method through the complete life cycle of a product and on determining an appropriate spatial scale at which to aggregate characterization factors in order to deal with data gaps on the location of processes, especially in the background system. Additional research should also focus on improving the reliability of the method by quantifying and, insofar as it is possible, reducing uncertainty.