Social and socioeconomic impacts from vehicle fuels

There is a desire in society to reduce the use of fossil fuels for several reasons, which has led to an extensive search for renewable alternatives to fossil fuels. Introduction of new technologies requires research to identify the potential benefits as well as the possible risks. To cover all stages of the production and use, a life cycle perspective is required. Since fuel production chains tend be global, taking a life cycle approach means that all life cycle phases back to the country of origin must be studied.

Focus on environmental impacts

Fuel production and use can lead to environmental, economic and social impacts. Most literature available on vehicle fuels has an emphasis on environmental consequences and is largely focused on greenhouse gas emissions. So far, research on social aspects of fuel production is limited despite the fact that fossil fuels as well as biofuels may cause negative social impacts. In recent years, the aspect of biofuels production impact on land use and food supply has gained some attention. Also fossil fuels have been questioned from a social and ethical point of view in terms of negative social impacts. Still, a broad social assessment in a life cycle perspective of different types of vehicle fuels is lacking.

A guideline for Social Life Cycle Assessment (S-LCA) was published in 2009. This new methodology offers a possibility to assess a broad range of social impacts in a systematic way with a life cycle approach. Recently an online tool for collection of social data, the Social Hotspot Database (SHDB), has been made available, facilitating the data collection for S-LCA.

The aim with this study is to use S-LCA methodology and the SHDB to do a screening assessment of social impacts on a selection of biofuels and fossil fuels, focusing on the identification of “hot-spots”, i.e. issues where there is a risk for significant social impacts. The assessment is conducted on a generic level, i.e. with country and/or sector level data, and the result indicates the social hot-spots of each fuel. Identifying the main social and socioeconomic impacts from the assessed fuels in a comparable way can be used to see how these are – or could be – incorporated in existing policies and certification schemes.

We assessed eight different production chains for vehicle fuels, presented in the table below, whereof three fossil fuel chains and five production chains for biofuels.

Fuel type

Fraction/

Feedstock

Origin

Diesel/
Gasoline

Crude oil

Russia

Norway

Nigeria

Biodiesel

Rapeseed

Lithuania

Ethanol

Sugar cane

Wheat and corn

Corn

Brazil

France

USA

 

The production chains were simplified, and the life cycle phases were grouped into three main steps, 1) production/ cultivation, 2) refining/processing and 3) transport.

Country of origin important

The preliminary results show that among the different fuels assessed, there is a mix of fossil and renewable displaying hot-spots regarding negative social impacts. Thus, the assessment shows that there are substantial negative social impacts from fossil fuels at the same levels as for biofuels. Rather, the country of origin seems to be of greater importance, as the most risk related and the least risk-related product system in our assessment applies to the same type of fuel, being oil. This does not, due to the limitations in a screening approach, give the foundation for claiming that one fuel are better/worse than the other, or even which fuel has the highest/lowest negative social impact. Yet, it can be concluded that high or very high risk of negative social impacts seems to be present in all combinations. Currently there is a focus on developing sustainability criteria for biofuels including social impacts. However, the results of this study indicate that this is just as important for fossil fuels. The result gives reason for developing policy so that strict procurement requirements for social performance are set for purchasing of all types of vehicle fuel.

Project information

Project period

2012-2013

Participants

Elisabeth Ekener Petersen & Göran Finnveden, KTH Royal Institute of Technology
Jonas Höglund, IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute

The project has played a part in the following PhD Thesis:

Ekener-Petersen, E. (2013). Tracking down Social Impacts of Products with Social Life Cycle Assessment. (Doctoral dissertation). Stockholm: KTH Royal Institute of Technology.