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New solutions for assessing the environmental sustainability of bio-based production

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8.7.2022

The production of biomaterials is based on the capture of carbon from the atmosphere into products. New bioeconomy concepts such as biofuels and other biomaterials enable the replacement of fossil raw materials with renewable ones. Comparing the climate impacts of fossil and biobased products is difficult, however, because there are no commonly accepted methods for including for example the biogenic carbon uptake in such comparisons. Therefore, the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) is developing new methods for this purpose, in collaboration with companies involved in the biobased industry.

Reliable new methods and tools are required for assessing the environmental impacts of new bioeconomy practices and products, and especially for identifying the potential to improve their environmental sustainability.

“In current product-specific environmental impact assessments, there is no uniform, generally accepted guidance for accounting for the carbon stored in biomass and soil, which is why the carbon sequestration is often ignored altogether. Furthermore, the current biodiversity assessment methods may not be optimal for product-level analyses. These shortcomings have been recognised also by the industry, and now we are working together to produce solutions to these problems,” explains Ilkka Leinonen, Research Professor at Luke.

New sustainability assessment methods

Luke is currently developing methods and tools for the sustainability assessment of new bioeconomy concepts in collaboration with the companies Neste, Fortum, Woodly, Paptic and Sulapac in a project funded by Business Finland. As a result of this collaboration, environmental Life Cycle Assessment methods are being developed further, especially focusing on biobased production. This methodological development covers different aspects of environmental sustainability, including modelling of soil and vegetation carbon stocks, accounting for indirect land use changes, assessing the impact of production on biodiversity, and developing methods for handling various side streams in environmental impact assessments.

“The current calculation methods are not sufficient to adequately verify all the environmental benefits of production of biobased materials, or the effect of companies’ own measures aiming for reduction of the adverse environmental impacts. It is therefore necessary to develop calculation methods that will better take the special features of bio-based production into account,” says Leinonen.

Competitive advantage from sustainable production

Demand for bio-based products will increase in the future. Therefore, companies with expertise in sustainable production and environmental impact assessment in this area will have a competitive advantage. For example, the methods being developed in this project will be more flexible and more case-specific than those currently available, allowing companies to specifically highlight the environmental benefits of their own production.

The methods to be developed will be made immediately applicable for the companies involved in the production and processing of biomaterials. The results of the project will also be published in international scientific journals, which makes it possible to contribute to the development of international guidelines and regulations for Life Cycle Assessment for biobased products.