, Volume 13, Issue 1, pp 32-48
Date: 09 Dec 2006

Assessment of land use impacts on the natural environment

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Goal, Scope and Background

Land use is an economic activity that generates large benefits for human society. One side effect, however, is that it has caused many environmental problems throughout history and still does today. Biodiversity, in particular, has been negatively influenced by intensive agriculture, forestry and the increase in urban areas and infrastructure. Integrated assessment such as Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), thus, incorporate impacts on biodiversity. The main objective of this paper is to develop generic characterization factors for land use types using empirical information on species diversity from Central Europe, which can be used in the assessment method developed in the first part of this series of paper.


Based on an extensive meta-analysis, with information about species diversity on 5581 sample plots, we calculated characterization factors for 53 land use types and six intensity classes. The typology is based on the CORINE Plus classification. We took information on the standardized α-diversity of plants, moss and mollusks into account. In addition, threatened plants were considered. Linear and nonlinear models were used for the calculation of damage potentials (EDP S). In our approach, we use the current mean species number in the region as a reference, because this determines whether specific land use types hold more or less species diversity per area. The damage potential calculated here is endpoint oriented. The corresponding characterization factors EDP S can be used in the Life Cycle Impact Assessment as weighting factors for different types of land occupation and land use change as described in Part 1 of this paper series.


The result from ranking the intensity classes based on the mean plant species number is as expected. High intensive forestry and agriculture exhibit the lowest species richness (5.7–5.8 plant species/m2), artificial surfaces, low intensity forestry and non-use have medium species richness (9.4–11.1 plant species/m2) and low-intensity agriculture has the highest species richness (16.6 plant species/m2). The mean and median are very close, indicating that the skewedness of the distribution is low. Standard error is low and is similar for all intensity classes. Linear transformations of the relative species numbers are linearly transformed into ecosystem damage potentials (EDP linear S ). The integration of threatened plant species diversity into a more differentiated damage function \(EDP_{linear}^{S_{total} } \) makes it possible to differentiate between land use types that have similar total species numbers, but intensities of land use that are clearly different (e.g., artificial meadow and broad-leafed forest). Negative impact values indicate that land use types hold more species per m2 than the reference does. In terms of species diversity, these land use types are superior (e.g. near-to-nature meadow, hedgerows, agricultural fallow).


Land use has severe impacts on the environment. The ecosystem damage potential EDP S is based on assessment of impacts of land use on species diversity. We clearly base EDP S factors on α-diversity, which correlates with the local aspect of species diversity of land use types. Based on an extensive meta-analysis of biologists’ field research, we were able to include data on the diversity of plant species, threatened plant species, moss and mollusks in the EDP S. The integration of other animal species groups (e.g. insects, birds, mammals, amphibians) with their specific habitat preferences could change the characterization factors values specific for each land use type. Those mobile species groups support ecosystem functions, because they provide functional links between habitats in the landscape.


The use of generic characterization factors in Life Cycle Impact Assessment of land use, which we have developed, can improve the basis for decision-making in industry and other organizations. It can best be applied for marginal land use decisions. However, if the goal and scope of an LCA requires it this generic assessment can be complemented with a site-dependent assessment.

Recommendations and Perspectives

We recommend utilizing the developed characterization factors for land use in Central Europe and as a reference methodology for other regions. In order to assess the impacts of land use in other regions it would be necessary to sample empirical data on species diversity and to develop region specific characterization factors on a worldwide basis in LCA. This is because species diversity and the impact of land use on it can very much differ from region to region.