Life Cycle Assessments now can account for biodiversity in forestry and agricultural production systems
Up until recently incorporating measures of forest biodiversity within a life cycle assessment (LCA) have not been feasible due to a lack of a method that captures key biodiversity principles (i.e. the impacts on various taxonomic groups such as plants, mammals, birds, frogs and insects) and that can be applied globally. Not having such a method has put the forestry industry at a disadvantage as previous LCAs involving forest products assumed the impacts on biodiversity from forestry operations negated other positive environmental outcomes (e.g. low greenhouse footprint, carbon sequestration).
To overcome this situation, a new method called BioImpact has been proposed to account for biodiversity impacts in LCAs. Now researchers from NSW Department of Primary Industries, the University of Tasmania and the University of Melbourne, with funding from FWPA, have further developed and refined BioImpact using two forestry systems (native forestry and plantation softwood timber production) and two agriculture systems (cropping and rangeland grazing), all in NSW.
The study demonstrated BioImpact works very well, discerning different biodiversity impacts for different land uses. Indeed, BioImpact was much more accurate than existing biodiversity assessment methods such as net primary productivity (NPP) and species richness. The results were consistent with broad expectations regarding the relative scores of the four processes, with native forestry having the lowest biodiversity impacts, followed by plantation forestry.
BioImpact is based on a series of questions that capture key biodiversity concepts within a production system area. It is very pragmatic in that these questions are based on ecological concepts considered important in the assessment of biodiversity and disturbance impacts by published research and from people who are experts in studying the area.
For example, if one was creating a BioImpact score for a forestry system you would do a literature review of research into both the region and the production system you are examining. You would then consult with experts to fill any gaps not covered by the literature (preferably with expertise in a wide range of different animal and plant forms pertaining to the studied region), who would respond to BioImpact’s previously developed list of 19 questions (plus three extra questions that are based on geographical information about the site). You would then combine the experts’ answers with the information from the literature review to create a total biodiversity score for each question. These scores would be included in the LCA for the production system (e.g. softwood or hardwood plantation) in that particular region.
The key benefit of BioImpact to the forest industry is that it will be able to comprehensively and holistically assess the biodiversity impacts of forestry operations. From the initial research testing it is very likely that the biodiversity impacts of sustainable forestry systems are significantly less than has previously been assumed.
As a result of the research LCA practitioners now have a relevant and accurate way to measure biodiversity impacts. A peer-reviewed paper based on the comprehensive report delivered to FWPA about BioImpact is to be submitted to The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, with the aims of having the Australian LCA Society (ALCAS) publish the data as well as house the background data required for the method.