Food, Feed, Fuel, Timber or Carbon Sink? Towards sustainable land-use systems - a consequential life cycle approach

In view of the competing demands on land to feed people adequately, sustain biodiversity and ecosystem services and mitigate climate change, there is a clear need for a systematic basis for allocating land use with respect to economic and environmental objectives. This study formulates an integrated environmental and economic assessment of the global consequences of changing current land use in the UK with different land-use strategies for food, feed, fuel, timber and carbon sink. Novel operational approaches are proposed for resolving the associated methodological issues, which are applied in the characterisation of the main land-use strategies in the UK. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is used for the environmental assessment, with emphasis on ecosystem carbon balances as the contribution to both global climate change and ecosystem services and biodiversity impacts. A parallel economic assessment is integrated with LCA. The results indicate that changing land use and management on current cropland generally does not deliver improvements in all three criteria of mitigating climate and impacts on ecosystem service and biodiversity, while creating additional economic value. There are a few exceptions, of which wheat and barley for feed and under organic management are the best. Expanding cropland onto set-aside and permanent grassland is more beneficial when crops are used for fuel (CHP) or for carbon sink (in the case of Douglas Fir and Ash, Sycamore and Silver Birch). Expansion onto set-aside is largely undesirable if by arable cropping, but desirable by energy and forestry crops. The former are best used for CHP whereas the latter as carbon sinks, even though no economic value is generated in the foreground system. The consequential assessment showed that indirect effects (i.e. those in the background system) are relevant and ought to be considered when assessing land-use strategies.

Filed under

Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment

Author Miguel Brandão
Institution Centre for Environmental Strategy, Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences, University of Surrey
Advisor Roland Clift
Expected graduation 2012