Quantifying your activities’ impact on biodiversity
Biodiversity refers to the variety of organisms present in an ecosystem, or the genetic variation within an area. This diversity is necessary for many ecosystems and human systems services, either directly (for example, agricultural activities) or indirectly (for example local temperature regulation or natural filtering and cleaning of water streams). For that reason, we need to make sure we protect our planet’s biodiversity and to do so we need to know the impacts of our actions on it.
Why do we need to protect biodiversity?
One important way biodiversity indirectly contributes to human and ecosystem health is by providing a resilient environment. The more diverse the gene pool, the more stable the ecosystem. For instance, disease will spread a lot more slowly through a diverse ecosystem where there is a lot of variety between organisms.
If there is damage to biodiversity, this may directly hamper human activities, either through a shortage of essential resources or through an environmental over-sensitivity to stress. This occurs in very ‘specialized’ systems, such as monoculture GMO crops with low diversity: they could be wiped out by a single cause, such as a spread of bacteria.
The number of unknown species is incredibly high: researchers estimate that around 90% of existing species still need to be described. This should lead us to think that we don’t fully understand most of the services provided by nature… nor the effects that could arise when these species disappear.
Biodiversity is falling at an enormous rate
As we said, maintaining biodiversity is paramount if humanity wants to go on with its activities without too many difficulties.
However, human activities are undoubtedly reducing this gene pool, both directly and indirectly. Sometimes we choose to reduce biodiversity because it seems convenient, for example by selecting only one species of plant, cultivating it on a large scale and implementing tough pest-control methods. But most activities reduce biodiversity indirectly, for example by causing ocean acidification. This damage is growing to such an extent that many scientists are referring to the current era as the Holocene Extinction, or the 6th Extinction: “The number of disappearing species is comparable to the species loss rate observed during the 5 mass extinction events that happened before the apparition of humanity.”
The issues with assessing biodiversity with standard LCA tools
It is not easy to assess the impact on biodiversity with life cycle assessment (LCA). LCA is traditionally used in industry, to assess industrial production that mostly does not depend directly on the ecosystem. For that reason, the results tend to give more weight to resource consumption and impacts on human health.
Because biodiversity loss is caused by multiple factors, many of them indirect, there is generally no single midpoint indicator that can reflect all the complexity associated with it.
Many LCA or life cycle inventory (LCI) databases were also constructed with the perspective of industrial services and goods in mind. Often, the data and flows necessary for assessing the impact on biodiversity are simply missing. For example, the most important cause of damage to biodiversity is a sudden change of habitat, indirectly caused by human activities. Change in habitat can be caused by emissions of global warming substances which are usually well-documented in the databases, but land use is often more damaging, even though it is often missing or underestimated in LCI databases.
Moreover, most impacts on biodiversity are more localized than most traditional LCA indicators: while the impact of carbon dioxide emissions is practically the same everywhere, withdrawing water from places where it is already scarce will have a lot more dramatic influence than where it is abundant. LCI databases or impact assessment methods don’t always have the elements necessary for regionalization, even though they are improving. The good news is that it is still possible to effectively assess your impact on biodiversity with LCA. Let me explain how…
Steps to start assessing the impact on biodiversity
Because of all these hindrances, it is necessary to perform a series of controls to make sure that you will obtain meaningful information.
First, make sure that the LCI database you are going to use contains both the localized data and the data flows needed for biodiversity assessment, land use being the most important. I personally use ecoinvent 3.2 (localized for water inputs) or the input-output database Exiobase 2.
Second, you need to select a method that can handle these types of indicators. At PRé, we decided to simply adapt our favorite method. ReCiPe Endpoint H was modified to include only the damage to ecosystems, to which we added the Water Scarcity indicator from Pfister et al (adapted for ReCiPe by the authors). We also added a lot of different flows to localize land-use impact.
Of course, the results sometimes still need to be debated. Even if land-use characterization factors are “localized”, the factor itself is still the same for each region. But at least it is possible to localize where the main impact arises. That is if the localized data are included in your LCI database.
As you can see, the effort is substantial. Even though the information obtained is still uncertain, I think it is worth the effort. These results allow companies to think beyond their usual scope and borders, as the main causes of biodiversity degradation don’t always occur within their traditional impact assessment boundaries. Land use for industrial processes can be quite far down the supply chain, for instance.
Casting a wider net to find impacts on biodiversity
When you focus an assessment on biodiversity damage, important new insights arise. Indicators such as land use and water scarcity have a bigger contribution to the overall impact than in regular LCAs. What’s more, such an assessment can reveal the impact of supply chain elements that are much more remote than you find in traditional assessments, thus helping companies to become better aware of their position within the global ecosystem.
However, as important as biodiversity assessment is for the sustainability of human activities, the development of the tools needed to do a truly reliable assessment is still a ‘work in progress’. Lastly, I contributed to the development of a web-based tool for measuring and visualizing the biodiversity impacts of global supply chains, on request of the Dutch Platform for Biodiversity, Ecosystems and Economy (Platform BEE). Please contact me if you or your company need to assess biodiversity damage. I would be happy to work with you on this.
Digital Solutions Expert
I believe companies and organisations need to make drastic changes in the way they do business. In my opinion, LCA is the best tool to help people focus on actually relevant changes. It can help companies steer in more sustainable directions without falling for obvious, but sometimes misleading, options.