Sustainability assessment of bioenergy provisioning services from arable land - An LCA-FoPIA approach

While some stakeholders hold the view that bioenergy provisioning services from the world’s most productive lands (i.e. arable land and forestlands) can help reduce global greenhouse emissions through its direct replacement of fossil fuels (the world’s major energy source), some others believe that associated high indirect greenhouse gas emissions and energy investments for ensuring high biomass yield (e.g. from fertilizer and pesticide production) negates the original purpose of the bioenergy provisioning services.

The controversies and conflicts surrounding bioenergy provisioning services (especially from arable land) raises doubts of its contribution to sustainability as an ecosystem service, and necesitates the where, when, who and how sustainability questions. Attempts at answering this questions often leads to the unearthing of the different elements of sustainability namely space (where), time (when), stakeholders (who) and impacts (how). While it is difficult to find sustainability assessment tools or frameworks which address all the elements of sustainability adequately, all sustainability assessment tools or frameworks seek to holistically cover as many elements as possible. In line with this objective, this study attempts to develop and test an holistic approach for assessing the sustainability of bioenergy provisoning services from arable land, with a view to address as many elements of sustainability as possible contextually. 

Consequently, the methodological framework proposed by this study involves an adaptation of a combination of LCA methodologies and an SIA (sustainability impact assessment) framework namely FoPIA (Framework for participatory impact assessment). LCA was chosen because it has capabilities for assessing the spatial elements of the sustainability of agro-bioenergy provisioning services adequately, with a view to provide vital information needed for decision maker’s visibility. Examples of spatial elements within the agro-bioenergy landscape include agro-ecological landscape conditions (tropics vs. sub-tropics vs. temperate), kinds of seed sown (native vs. Genetically modified vs. hybrid), type of irrigation system adopted (rain-fed vs. sprinkler vs. surface vs. drip), tillage system employed (mouldboard vs. chisel vs. stubble and mulch vs. disk vs. ridge plant vs. strip till vs. no-till ), tractor grade deployed (> 50 hp vs. 20-49 hp vs. 10-19 hp vs. <9 hp), farmpower system used (human vs. animal vs. tractor), fertilization options (synthetic fertilizer vs. animal manure vs. Biogas digestate), alternative biomass conversion technology (wet anaerobic digestion vs. wet milling operations) etc.. FoPIA on the other hand was chosen because of its capabilities for assessing the stakeholders and impact elements of the sustainability of agro-bioenergy provisioning services. FoPIA does this by practically engaging decision makers and decision takers in the assessment of impacts across the three impact divides (social, economic and environmental) using stakeholder-based indicators and an aggregation of stakeholder’s assigned ratings and weights.

However, it is also worthy of note that while LCA avoid narrow outlook on environmental concerns and addresses environmental impacts adequately using relevant indicators, it does not address social and economic impacts; Also while it accounts for local and regional factors, it is not a spatial locational and analysis tool like GIS. Therefore, questions directly related to spatial and locational analysis will still require the deployment of GIS datasets, models and technology. Also observed is the fact that LCA and FoPIA only addresses short-term time frame adequately, but has limited view on mid-term and long-term time frames. This weakness can however be strengthened with the use of relevant temporal and/or spatio-temporal decision support data, models and tools.

Within the context of the proposed methdology, FoPIA framework is expected to complement LCA methodology by engaging both stakeholder groups (decision makers and decision takers) as opposed to LCA which reaches out to only the decision makers. Also, FoPIA is expected to complement LCA by assessing sustainability impacts across the three impact divides namely social, economic and environmental. It should however also be noted that despite the fact that FoPIA addresses concerns across the three major impact divides (social, economic and environmental), it still has a narrow outlook on all impact divides and does not analyze its indicators in-depth. This is because it focuses on weighing impacts across the three divides qualitatively based on stakeholder’s assigned ratings and not based on quantitatively sound index like LCA does. While LCA addressses series of environmental impacts in-depth and quantitatively, the quantititive weakness in the analysis of social and economic impacts can be addressed with the aid of quantitative indicator based results from relevant socio-economic decision-support models and tools.

A brief  illustration of the completeness of LCA and FoPIA methodologies, with respect to the elements and sub-elements of sustainability they address individually and in combination with each other can be seen below.