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Life-cycle climate impacts of peat fuel: calculation methods and methodological challenges

Grönroos, Juha, Seppälä, Jyri, Koskela, Sirkka, Kilpeläinen, Antti, Leskinen, Pekka, Holma, Anne, Tuovinen, Juha-Pekka, Turunen, Jukka, Lind, Saara, Maljanen, Marja, Martikainen, Pertti J.
international journal of life cycle assessment 2013 v.18 no.3 pp. 567-576
climate, climate change, coal, greenhouse gas emissions, greenhouse gases, land use change, life cycle assessment, long term effects, peat, soil, vegetation, Finland, Sweden
PURPOSE: There has been lively debate, especially in Finland and Sweden, on the climate impacts of peat fuel. Previous studies of peat fuel's life-cycle climate impacts were controversial in their interpretation. The aim of this paper is conclusive examination of the issues of LCA methodology, derived from critical review of previous studies and recalculation based on the latest knowledge of greenhouse gas balances related to peat fuel’s utilisation and the radiative forcing impacts of greenhouse gases. METHODS: The most recent findings on emissions and the gas fluxes between soil, vegetation and atmosphere were used in calculation of the life-cycle climate impacts of the various peat fuel utilisation chains by means of LCA methodology. In the main, the calculation methods and rules were the same as in the previous studies, with the aim being to distinguish the impact of peat fuel’s utilisation from that of the natural or semi-natural situation. A dynamic method was employed for assessing changes in radiative forcing. The results of alternative peat fuel utilisation chains were compared to the corresponding result for coal. RESULTS: There are many steps in peat fuel LCA, where different assumptions lead to different outcomes. Determining the functional unit, reference situations and system boundaries, as well as the emission calculation methods, is important from this point of view. Determination of the initial reference situation emerged as one of the critical points in the calculations. Time scale can strongly affect the final outcomes in a study where effects of long-term land-use change are considered. CONCLUSIONS: Each peatland area is unique. The higher the greenhouse gas emissions in the initial reference situation, the greater is the climate impact of the area and the more suitable the area is for peat extraction. The study showed that more greenhouse gas flux measurements are needed, for better assessment of the climate impacts of different potential peat extraction sites. Climate change mitigation requires quick actions, and uncertainties related to emissions are higher for longer time spans. Therefore, it can be concluded that a perspective spanning more than 100 years is inappropriate in peat fuel's life-cycle climate impact assessments.