Sustainability Impact Assessments: Fossil versus renewable resources

The replacement of fossil energy by renewable resources as input source for materials, chemicals, food and feed ingredients, energy and fuels in the bio-based economy has a number of economic, societal and environmental impacts throughout the whole production chain. As a leading partner of The Sustainability Consortium, Wageningen Economic Research has been widely involved in such integrated assessments.

In an integrated sustainability impact assessment we compare the economic, societal and environmental performance of a production chain based on fossil energy with those of a production chain based on renewable resources.

The five steps of an integrated sustainability impact assessment

1. Design of the baseline and alternative scenarios

In the baseline scenario a systematic description is given of the production chain based on fossil energy, in which inputs and outputs are quantified. In the alternative scenario, such a description is given for the production chain based on renewable resources. If desirable, several alternative scenarios can be designed.

2. Determining the economic performance of each of the scenarios

Economic performance includes a wide range of indicators such as volume of inputs (land, labour, capital, materials), cost and revenues in each segment of the chain, value added in each segment of the chain at local/regional/national level. Usually, data for these indicators in the baseline scenario can be found in data sources from Eurostat (National Accounts, REGIO and FADN). However, for determining the economic performance of the alternative scenario, simulations with models are needed, as the demand for biomass in this scenario may induce price changes which affect demand and supply of economic sectors outside the studied chain as well. Models that can be used and that are available at Wageningen Economic Research are CAPRI (agricultural farm model for NUTS2 regions in the EU), AGMEMOD (agricultural model at Member State level in the EU) and MAGNET (general equi-librium model of the world economy).

3. Determining the environmental performance of each of the scenarios

Wageningen Economic Research uses lifecycle analysis (LCA) for determining the environmental performance. LCA distinguishes between a number of effect categories within environmental performance. These effect categories include water quality, soil quality, greenhouse gas emissions, carbon sink, biodiversity, energy use, land use, water use, climate change, etc. Some of these effect categories refer to the global level, others to the regional level. By using the data sources EcoInvent and Feedprint, data for the effect categories are given for each segment of the chain in both the baseline and the alternative scenario.

4. Determining the societal performance of each of the scenarios

Social performance considers all societal and policy indicators which are not part of the economic and environmental performance. It includes indicators such as working conditions, contribution to the local economy, transport costs, product quality and product availability. As most of these indicators are qualitative, data are collected by means of literature study, expert knowledge and interviews with the industry, for both the baseline and the alternative scenario.

5. Comparison of the economic, societal and environmental performance in the baseline scenario with those in the alternative scenario

In this final step, a comparative analysis of the indicators and effect categories of the economic, environmental and societal performance of the baseline scenario and the alternative scenario is made. The findings of the comparative analysis are discussed and reported.The replacement of fossil energy by renewable resources as input source for mate-rials, chemicals, food and feed ingredients, energy and fuels in the bio-based economy has a number of economic, societal and environmental impacts through-out the whole production chain.