Inclusion of soil erosion impacts in life cycle assessment on a global scale: application to energy crops in Spain

  • Montserrat Núñez
  • Assumpció Antón
  • Pere Muñoz
  • Joan Rieradevall



Despite the fundamental role of ecosystem goods and services in sustaining human activities, there is no harmonized and internationally agreed method for including them in life cycle assessment (LCA). The main goal of this study was to develop a globally applicable and spatially resolved method for assessing land use impacts on the erosion regulation ecosystem service.


Soil erosion depends much on location. Thus, unlike conventional LCA, the endpoint method was regionalized at the grid cell level (5 arcmin, approximately 10 × 10 km2) to reflect the spatial conditions of the site. Spatially explicit characterization factors were not further aggregated at broader spatial scales.

Results and discussion

Life cycle inventory data of topsoil and topsoil organic carbon (SOC) losses were interpreted at the endpoint level in terms of the ultimate damage to soil resources and ecosystem quality. Human health damages were excluded from the assessment. The method was tested on a case study of five 3-year agricultural rotations, two of them with energy crops, grown in several locations in Spain. A large variation in soil and SOC losses was recorded in the inventory step, depending on climatic and edaphic conditions. The importance of using a spatially explicit model and characterization factors is shown in the case study.


The regionalized assessment takes into account the differences in soil erosion-related environmental impacts caused by the great variability of soils. Taking this regionalized framework as the starting point, further research should focus on testing the applicability of the method through the complete life cycle of a product and on determining an appropriate spatial scale at which to aggregate characterization factors in order to deal with data gaps on the location of processes, especially in the background system. Additional research should also focus on improving the reliability of the method by quantifying and, insofar as it is possible, reducing uncertainty.


Ecosystem services Land use impacts Regionalized life cycle impact assessment Soil organic carbon Soil loss 



This work was carried out within the framework of the national and strategic On Cultivos Project, funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation and the European Regional Development Fund, and the LC-IMPACT project—Improved Life Cycle Impact Assessment Methods (LCIA) for Better Sustainability Assessment of Technologies (grant agreement no. 243827), funded by the European Commission under the 7th Framework Programme on the Environment, ENV.2009. We would like to thank the staff at IRTA-Experimental Station Mas Badia Foundation (Spain) and Dr. Asunción Usón for their help with the case study.

Supplementary material

11367_2012_525_MOESM1_ESM.docx (429 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 423 kb)
11367_2012_525_MOESM2_ESM.rar (1.5 mb)
ESM 2 (RAR 1549 kb)
11367_2012_525_MOESM3_ESM.rar (960 kb)
ESM 3 (RAR 960 kb)


  1. Bartholomé E, Belward AS (2005) GLC2000: a new approach to global land cover mapping from Earth observation data. Int J Remote Sens 26(9):1959–1977CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Beck T, Boss U, Wittstock B, Baitz M, Fischer M, Sedlbauer K (2010) LANCA©. Land use indicator value calculation in life cycle assessment. University of Stuttgart, GermanyGoogle Scholar
  3. Brandão M, Milà i Canals L (2012) Global characterisation factors to assess land use impacts on biotic production. Int J Life Cycle Assess. doi: 10.1007/s11367-012-0381-3
  4. COM, Commission of the European Communities (2002) Towards a thematic strategy for soil protection. COM 179. 16/04/2002. Accessed 9 January 2012
  5. Costanza R, Fisher B, Mulder K, Liu S, Christopher T (2007) Biodiversity and ecosystem services: a multi-scale empirical study of the relationship between species richness and net primary production. Ecol Econ 61(4):478–491CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. De Schryver A, Goedkoop M, Leuven R, Huijbregts M (2010) Uncertainties in the application of the species area relationship for characterisation factors of land occupation in life cycle assessment. Int J Life Cycle Assess 15(7):682–691CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Dregne HE, Chou NT (1992) Global desertification dimensions and costs. In: Dregne HE (ed) Degradation and restoration of arid lands. Texas Tech University, Lubbock, pp 249–282Google Scholar
  8. EEA (2005) Agriculture and environment in EU-15. The IRENA indicator report no. 6. European Environment Agency, Copenhagen, Denmark. Accessed 20 September 2011
  9. EEA (2006) How much bioenergy can Europe produce without harming the environment? Report no. 7. European Environment Agency, Copenhagen, Denmark. Accessed 9 January 2012
  10. FAO, UNESCO, ISRIC (1990) Revised legend of the soil map of the world. World Soil Resources Report, Rome, ItalyGoogle Scholar
  11. FAO, IIASA, ISRIC, ISSCAS, JRC (2009) Harmonized world soil database (version 1.1). Accessed 15 October 2011
  12. FAO/UNEP (1984) Provisional methodology for assessment and mapping of desertification. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. United Nations Environmental Programme, RomeGoogle Scholar
  13. FAO/UNESCO (2007) Effective soil depth raster map. Accessed 2 November 2011
  14. Flombaum P, Sala OE (2008) Higher effect of plant species diversity on productivity in natural than artificial ecosystems. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 105(16):6087–6090CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Frischknecht R, Jungbluth N, Althaus HJ, Doka G, Dones R, Hischier R et al (2007) Overview and methodology. Final report ecoinvent data v2.0, no. 1. Swiss Centre for Life Cycle Inventories, DübendorfGoogle Scholar
  16. Gobin A, Govers G (2003) Pan European soil erosion risk assessment. 3rd Annual Report. EU 5th Framework Programme, project no. QLK5-CT-1999-01323Google Scholar
  17. Goedkoop M, Spriensma R (2001) The Eco-indicator 99. A damage oriented method for life cycle impact assessment: methodology report, 3rd edn. Amersfoort, the NetherlandsGoogle Scholar
  18. Goedkoop M, Heijungs R, Huijbregts M, De Schryver A, Struijts J, van Zelm R (2009) ReCiPe 2008, 1st edn. the NetherlandsGoogle Scholar
  19. Haberl H, Erb KH, Krausmann F, Gaube V, Bondeau A, Plutzar C et al (2007) Quantifying and mapping the global human appropriation of net primary production in Earth’s terrestrial ecosystem. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 104(31):12942–12947CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Harvey CA, Pimentel D (1996) Effects of soil and wood depletion on biodiversity. Biodivers Conserv 5(9):1121–1130CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Holdridge LR (1947) Determination of world plant formations from simple climatic data. Science 105(2727):367–368CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Jenny H (1994) Factors of soil formation. A system of quantitative pedology. Dover Publications, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  23. Jolliet O, Margni M, Charles R, Humbert S, Payet J, Rebitzer G et al (2003) IMPACT2002+: a new life cycle impact assessment methodology. Int J Life Cycle Assess 8(6):324–330CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Jones RJA, Hiederer R, Rusco E, Loveland PJ, Montanarella L (2005) Estimating organic carbon in the soils of Europe for policy support. Eur J Soil Sci 56(5):655–671CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. JRC (2010) ILCD Handbook. Framework and requirements for life cycle impact assessment models and indicators. European Commission, Joint Research Centre, IspraGoogle Scholar
  26. Koellner T (2000) Species-pool effect potentials (SPEP) as a yardstick to evaluate land-use impacts on biodiversity. J Clean Prod 8(4):293–311CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Koellner T, Scholz R (2008) Assessment of land use impacts on the natural environment. Part 2: generic characterization factors for local species diversity in Central Europe. Int J Life Cycle Assess 13(1):32–48Google Scholar
  28. Koellner T, Baan L, Beck T, Brandao M, Civit B, Goedkoop M, Margni M, Milà i Canals L, Müller-Wenk R, Weidema B, Wittstock B (2012) Principles for life cycle inventories of land use on a global scale. Int J Life Cycle Assess. doi: 10.1007/s11367-012-0392-0
  29. Le Bissonais Y, Thorette J, Bardet C, Daroussin J (2002) L’erosion hydrique du sols en France. Technical Report, INRA et IFENGoogle Scholar
  30. Mann L, Tolbert V, Cushman J (2002) Potential environmental effects of corn (Zea mays L.) stover removal with emphasis on soil organic matter and erosion. Agric Ecosyst Environ 89(3):149–166CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Melillo JM, McGuire AD, Kicklighter DW, More B, Vorosmarty CJ, Schloss AL (1993) Global climate change and terrestrial net primary production. Nature 363(6426):234–240CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. MERMA (2012) Soil erosion map. Spanish Ministry of the Environment and Rural and Marine Affairs. Accessed 9 January 2012
  33. Milà i Canals L, Bauer C, Depestele J, Dubreuil A, Freiermuth Knuchel R, Gaillard G et al (2007a) Key elements in a framework for land use impact assessment within LCA. Int J Life Cycle Assess 12(1):5–15CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Milà i Canals L, Romanyà J, Cowell S (2007b) Method for assessing impacts on life support functions (LSF) related to the use of fertile land in life cycle assessment (LCA). J Clean Prod 15(15):1426–1440CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) Ecosystems and human well-being: synthesis. Island Press, WashingtonGoogle Scholar
  36. Mokma DL, Sietz MA (1992) Effects of soil erosion on corn yields on Marlette soils in south-central Michigan. J Soil Water Conserv 47(4):325–327Google Scholar
  37. Morgan RPC (1992) Soil erosion in the northern countries of the European Community. EIW Workshop Elaboration of a framework of a code of good agricultural practices. Brussels, BelgiumGoogle Scholar
  38. Müller-Wenk R, Brandão M (2010) Climatic impact of land use in LCA–carbon transfers between vegetation/soil and air. Int J Life Cycle Assess 15(2):172–182CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Muys B, García Quijano J (2002) A new method for land use impact assessment in LCA based on ecosystem exergy concept. Internal report. Laboratory for Forest, and Landscape Research, Leuven, Belgium. Accessed 9 January 9 2012
  40. Odum HT (1996) Environmental accounting: emergy and environmental decision making. Wiley, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  41. Olson DM, Dinerstein E, Wikramanayake ED, Burgess ND, Powell GVN, Underwood EC et al (2001) Terrestrial ecoregions of the worlds: a new map of life on Earth. BioScience 51(11):933–938CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Pfister S, Koehler A, Hellweg S (2009) Assessing the environmental impacts of freshwater consumption in LCA. Environ Sci Technol 43(11):4098–4104CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Pfister S, Bayer P, Koehler A, Hellweg S (2011) Environmental impacts of water use in global crop production: hotspots and trade-offs with land use. Environ Sci Technol 45(13):5761–5768CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Pimentel D, Kounang N (1998) Ecology of soil erosion in ecosystems. Ecosystems 1(5):416–426CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Pimentel D, Allen J, Beers A, Guinand L, Linder R, McLaughlin P et al (1987) World agriculture and soil erosion. BioScience 37(4):277–283CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Reich P, Eswaran H, Beinroth F (2001) Global dimensions of vulnerability to wind and water erosion. In: Stott DE, Mohtar RH, Steinhardt GC (eds) Sustaining the global farm. Selected papers from the 10th International Soil Conservation Organization Meeting 24–29 May 1999, Perdue University and USDA-ARS National Soil Erosion Research Laboratory, United States, pp 838–846Google Scholar
  47. Renard KG, Foster GR, Weesies GA, Mc Cool DK, Yoder DC (1997) Predicting soil erosion by water: a guide to conservation planning with the Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation (RUSLE). Agricultural Handbook no. 703. Department of Agriculture, USAGoogle Scholar
  48. Rugani B, Huijbregts MAJ, Mutel C, Bastianoni S, Hellweg S (2011) Solar energy demand (SED) of commodity life cycles. Environ Sci Technol 45(12):5426–5433CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Saad R, Margni M, Koellner T, Wittstock B, Deschênes L (2011) Assessment of land use impacts on soil ecological functions: development of spatially differentiated characterization factors within a Canadian context. Int J Life Cycle Assess 16(3):198–211CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. UNEP (2003) Evaluation of environmental impacts in life cycle assessment. Meeting report. Brussels, 29–30 November 1998, and Brighton, 25–26 May 2000, United Nations Environment Programme, Division of Technology, Industry and Economics, Production and Consumption BranchGoogle Scholar
  51. Weidema BP, Bauer C, Hischier R, Mutel C, Nemecek T, Vadenbo CO et al (2011) Overview and methodology. Data quality guideline for the ecoinvent database version 3 (final draft_revision 1). Ecoinvent Report 1 (v3). The Ecoinvent Centre, St. GallenGoogle Scholar
  52. Williams JR, Izaurralde RC (2005) The APEX model. BRC report no. 2005-02. Texas A&M University, Texas Agricultural Extension Service, Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, Blacklands Research Center, Temple, USAGoogle Scholar
  53. Williams JR, Jones CA, Dyke PT (1984) A modeling approach to determining the relationship between erosion and soil productivity. Trans ASAE 27(1):129–144Google Scholar
  54. Wischmeier WH, Smith DD (1978) Predicting rainfall erosion losses—a guide to conservation planning. Agricultural Handbook no. 537. Department of Agriculture, USAGoogle Scholar
  55. Zhang Y, Baral A, Bakshi BR (2010) Accounting for ecosystem services in life cycle assessment, part II: toward an ecologically based LCA. Environ Sci Technol 44(7):2624–2631CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Zika M, Erb K (2009) The global loss of net primary production resulting from human-induced soil degradation in drylands. Ecol Econ 69(2):310–318CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Montserrat Núñez
    • 1
    • 2
  • Assumpció Antón
    • 1
    • 3
  • Pere Muñoz
    • 1
  • Joan Rieradevall
    • 4
    • 5
  1. 1.IRTA, SostenipraCabrilsSpain
  2. 2.INRA, UR050, Laboratoire de Biotechnologie de l’EnvironnementNarbonneFrance
  3. 3.Departament d’Enginyeria QuímicaUniversitat Rovira i Virgili (URV)TarragonaSpain
  4. 4.ICTA, Sostenipra, Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA)Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB)BellaterraSpain
  5. 5.Chemical Engineering DepartmentUniversitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB)BellaterraSpain

Personalised recommendations