International Energy Agency releases report on assessing environmental aspects of biomass supply chains

For several years, there has been an ongoing public dialogue about the sustainability of bioenenergy production and use that has included discussion of implications for climate, water, soil, land use change, and biodiversity. Recently, the International Energy Agency (http://www.iea.org/) released a technical report on assessing the environmental performance of biomass supply chains. The report, Assessing the Environmental Performance of Biomass Supply Chains, was produced by IEA Bioenergy under Task 43 which charged experts with development of analyses, syntheses, and conclusions on “all fields related to biomass feedstock, including biomass markets and the socioeconomic and environmental consequences of feedstock production.”

IEA Bioenergy Technical Report TR2015:01 seeks to provide state of the art information on environmental impacts of biomass supply chains, how to assess biomass supply chains, challenges, and limitations. It discusses and offers recommendations about application of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), a tool that can be used to assess the environmental performance of any product or service, for assessing biomass production. Major sections of the report address (1) LCA methodology and biomass; (2) two LCA case studies including biomass production in short rotation coppice and its use in Germany and bioenergy supply chains in Swedish agriculture; and (3) an assessment of “non-standard” environmental impacts. 

Several NCASI staff members contributed to a chapter that appears in this last section. The chapter, “Biodiversity Assessment within LCA of Biomass Harvesting,” identifies challenges associated with integrating biodiversity considerations into the LCA framework and notes the current lack of field research investigating response of biological diversity to actual biomass production practices. Authors of the chapter are Manuele Margni of Polytechnique Montréal; Caroline Gaudreault, Jake Verschuyl, T. Bently Wigley, and Kirsten Vice of NCASI; and Brian Titus of Natural Resources Canada. 

The chapter concludes that “LCA is not currently suited to providing reliable site-specific assessment results in regard to the complexities of biodiversity, and probably never will be because of the global and comprehensive nature of LCA. Nonetheless, biodiversity is a key aspect that should be incorporated into life-cycle approaches to reduce the risk of environmental burden shifting across impact categories or across life-cycle stages.” Thus, the authors recommend that site-specific and/or territorial assessment approaches such as [Environmental Impact Assessment] may be “an essential complementary tool when LCA is applied in the context of biodiversity and can be used to mitigate against inaccurate conclusions.”

The IEA Bioenergy Technical Report is available at http://www.ieabioenergytask43.org/httpwww-iewp-contentuploads201309cover-tr2014-1-png/.