16.2 Sustainability LCA of Biofuels

Tarja Ketola , Industrial Management, University of Vaasa, Vaasa, Finland
Tiina Myllylä , Industrial Management, University of Vaasa, Vaasa, Finland
Sustainability LCA of Biofuels

Extended abstract

Picture year 2015: households, companies and other organizations all over the world turning their sewage into biofuels instead of discharging it into environment? That would solve two global problems at once: over-fertilization of waterways causing sea, lake and river deaths, and carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels contributing to climate change. This vision represents cradle-to-cradle approach in which nothing ever becomes waste but is endlessly recycled in different renewable, harmless forms. Maybe such an idea will not be applied globally by 2015, but it certainly seems, at least to laypeople, an ideal solution to our world's major environmental, socio-cultural and economic problems. The feasibility of turning sewage into biofuels needs to be put into perspective by comparing it to other ways of producing, consuming and recycling biofuels.

Biofuels can nowadays be refined from dozens of different plants and different kinds of waste. The most common plants for biofuel include maize, wheat, barley, oats, potatoes, soya beans, palm oil, rapeseed oil, sunflower oil, sugar beans, sugar roots, switchgrass and alga. In addition, e.g. straw, wood, woodchips, forest residue and peat may be used. Almost any kind of biodegradable waste and sludge are suitable biofuel raw materials.

The purpose of this research is to conduct a sustainability life cycle assessment (LCA) of different kinds of biofuels.

Sustainability has four dimensions: environmental, social, cultural and economic sustainability. In a sustainability life cycle assessment all four dimensions need to be evaluated. Environmental sustainability comprises biodiversity, natural resource use, and the effects of production, consumption and products on the environment. Social responsibility deals with issues such as wellbeing, employment, alienation, aging, equality, justice and participation. Cultural sustainability encompasses values, attitudes and customs. Economic sustainability reaches from global, national and regional to corporate and household economy issues.

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is usually defined as merely an environmental LCA (Guinee 2002, Hendrickson et al. 2006). This research takes a more holistic perspective on LCA, allowing it to cover all aspects of sustainability. Sustainability LCA is a systematic evaluation of the environmental, social, cultural and economic consequences of a particular product, process, or activity from cradle to grave or, ever more frequently, from cradle to cradle. LCAs need to cover the whole life cycle of biofuels, starting from raw materials, production, transportation and distribution to usage, maintenance, reuse, recycling and disposal as well as energy production and consumption during all these stages.

As yet there is no general agreement even of the criteria of environmental LCAs. For example the LCA section of the first version of the Nordic Swan Ecolabel covers only greenhouse emissions and energy use (Nordic Council of Ministers 2008). Hence, in the first part of this research generally acceptable environmental LCA criteria for biofuels will be compiled. The different corporate, political, civil and scientific actors will be interviewed to collect their views and experiences of environmental LCA criteria for biofuels. Based on this information a model of environmental LCA criteria for biofuels will be drafted.

Comparative LCA research in the area has focussed on comparing some biofuels to some fossil fuels. For example, SenterNovem (2008), an agency of the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, commissioned a biofuel LCA, which compared bioethanol from wheat to gasoline and MTBE, and biodiesel from rapeseed to diesel. On the other hand, analyses of greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels have been conducted (e.g. Delucchi 2006, Farrel et al. 2006, International Energy Agency 2004). In addition, Hill et al. (2006) have made environmental, economic, and energetic cost/benefit analyses of biodiesel and ethanol biofuels.

In conclusion, partial LCAs of a number of biofuels have been carried out, particularly a variety of environmental LCAs, but also some economic cost/benefit analyses. Yet a holistic sustainability LCA comparison of biofuels made of the most common plants and wastes is still missing. This paper demonstrates the findings of the first part of this major endeavour: generally acceptable criteria for environmental LCAs of biofuels and a draft environmental LCA comparison of biofuels made of the most common plants and wastes. Some of these findings may be surprising to many researchers.


Delucchi, M.A. 2006. Lifecycle Analyses of Biofuels. Institute of Transportation Studies. University of California, Davis, CA.

Farrell, A.E., Plevin, R.J., Turner, B.T., Jones, A.D., O'Hare, M. and Kammen, D.M. 2006. Ethanol Can Contribute To Energy and Environmental Goals, Science 311: 506-508.

Guinee, J.B. (ed.) 2002. Handbook on Life Cycle Assessment: Operational Guide to the ISO Standards.  Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands.

Hendrickson, C.T., Lester, B. and Matthews, H.S. 2006. Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Goods and Services. Resources for the Future, Washington, DC.

Hill, J., Nelson, E., Tilman, D., Polasky, S. and Tiffany, D. 2006. Environmental, economic, and energetic costs and benefits of biodiesel and ethanol biofuels. PNAS, July 25: 103-132.

International Energy Agency 2004. Biofuels for Transport. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Paris.

Nordic Council of Ministers 2008. The Nordic Swan Ecolabel. See: http://www.svanen.nu/Default.aspx?tabName=StartPage&menuItemID=7055 [visited 11 December 2008].

SenterNovem 2008. Participative LCA on biofuels. Rapport 2GAVE -05.08. The Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment  (VROM), the Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management, The Hague, The Netherlands.