Journal Articles

Are the factors recommended by UNEP-SETAC for evaluating biodiversity in LCA achieving their promises? A case study of corrugated boxes produced in the US

May 15, 2020

International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 12:1013-1026
Download full article

Caroline Gaudreault (formerly of NCASI), Craig Loehle (NCASI), Stephen Prisley (NCASI), Kevin A. Solarik (NCASI), and Jacob P. Verschuyl (NCASI)

Purpose – We tested the effectiveness of the global and ecoregion-based average characterization factors (CFs) for “Potential Species Loss” recommended by the UNEP-SETAC Life Cycle Initiative to identify hotspots and improvement opportunities compared to using a land competition indicator for a product for which the predominant life cycle use of land is forest management.

Methods – For a case study of average corrugated boxes produced in the US, system boundaries were defined to encompass all life cycle stages from forest management to disposal. Fiber procurement was regionalized to US ecoregions, and (Chaudhary et al. Environ Sci Technol 49:9987–9995, 2015) ecoregion-specific CFs were applied. US-average CFs were applied to other background processes. Hotspots were identified using contribution analyses, and improvement opportunities were evaluated using scenarios. We compared the results with those from applying a land competition indicator, often used as a proxy for biodiversity in LCA.

Results and discussion – Forest management was identified as the activity within the life cycle of corrugated boxes that uses the greatest amount of land, allowing the definition of two potential improvement opportunities: reducing fiber consumption and intensifying forest management. By applying the recommended CFs, fiber procurement was also identified as the main contributor to “Potential Species Loss.” The CFs also allowed to identify ecoregions in which species were potentially the most affected by forest management and related potential improvement opportunities. Tradeoffs between taxonomic groups were discussed. In some cases, the results contradicted those from applying a land competition indicator, and in many cases, we were unable to reconcile the results obtained with existing scientific knowledge on species diversity and forest management.

Conclusions and recommendations – The results obtained by applying the recommended CFs could not always be reconciled with existing scientific knowledge on the effect of forest management on species diversity, significantly impairing the usefulness of these factors for assessing improvement opportunities and increasing the risk of counterproductive decisions. The local effect on species of forest management is likely to be misrepresented by the average number of species in a given ecoregion. Successful consideration of biodiversity response in the context of forest management would require the integration of other approaches, such as site-specific studies. Potential improvements to the proposed method include further spatialization of the CFs, defining a range of forest management practices for which CFs would be defined, considering forest productivity, and defining CFs using a baseline that would encourage better practices even within a given existing management regime.

biodiversity, ecoregion, forest management, LCA, life cycle assessment, UNEP-SETAC, corrugated boxes, United States