How can socio-economic factors be integrated in an assessment of general sustainability performance of transportation fuels production?

The production and use of vehicle fuels results in both environmental and socio-economic impacts. The EU Renewable Energy Directive (RED), as well as the vast majority of the available studies enfolding vehicle fuels, however focus on environmental impacts, and in many cases primarily on GHG emissions. To move towards sustain­able development, a broader scope of sustainability issues needs to be taken into account in future assessment efforts and policy.

In order to address a broad range of sustainability aspects a method labelled Life Cycle Sustainabil­ity Assessment (LCSA) can be employed. It combines three different lifecycle methods, corre­sponding to the three pillars of sustainable development; environmental LCA (E-LCA), social LCA (S-LCA) and life cycle cost (LCC).

In recognition of these knowledge gaps, the overall aim of the project Integrated assessment of vehicle fuels with sustainability LCA - Social and environmental impacts in a life cycle perspective, carried out within the f3 and Swedish Energy Agency collaborative research programme Renewable transportation fuels and systems (samverkansprogrammet F√∂rnybara drivmedel och system) has been to examine the use of LCSA to assess the sustainability performance of transportation fuels through aggregating different sustainability perspectives into one holistic outcome.This is done using three dif­ferent stakeholder profiles, representing different worldviews and value judgments when priori­tizing between the different sustainability perspectives.

The LCSA in the study is applied to four selected fossil and renewable vehicle fuel value chains: Petrol based on crude oil from Nigeria, pet­rol based on crud oil from Russia, ethanol based on sugarcane grown in Brazil, and ethanol based on corn (maize) grown in the USA. Both biofuels represent first generation biofuels.

Results shows that the ranking order of the different vehicle fuels chains are quite different for the different stakeholder profiles, meaning that there is not always one single answer for the most sustainable choice between different alternatives. Rather, this is dependent on different priorities held by different stakeholders, or the population they represent.

Integration of different sustainability perspectives is a challenge, as it is inevitably based on value judgements. Also, all three underlying lifecycle methods – E-LCA, S-LCA and LCC - have different methodological limitations. However, the methodology approach examined in the project work may be useful for efforts to leave the typical ‘silo’-thinking behind that can be found in sustainability discourse. Instead, ac­tors can be motivated to focus on broad, comprehensive sustainability implications of various prod­uct life cycles. LCSA could thus be used as an information tool to guide the formulation of policy, and as an assess­ment tool providing information to assess overall success (or failure) of policy interventions.

The project has been lead by Elisabeth Ekener, KTH, with participants from IVL, Lund University and Stockholm University. Two scientific publications have also been produced, which are linked from the project site.