Biodiversity impacts from water consumption on a global scale for use in life cycle assessment

  • Francesca VeronesEmail author
  • Stephan Pfister
  • Rosalie van Zelm
  • Stefanie Hellweg



Agriculture is a major water user worldwide, potentially depriving many ecosystems of water. Comprehensive global impact assessment methodologies are therefore required to assess impacts from water consumption on biodiversity. Since scarcity of water, as well as species richness, varies greatly between different world regions, a spatially differentiated approach is needed. Therefore, our aim is to enhance a previously published methodology in terms of spatial and species coverage.


We developed characterization factors for lifecycle impact assessment (LCIA) targeting biodiversity loss of various animal taxa (i.e., birds, reptiles, mammals, and amphibians) in wetlands. Data was collected for more than 22,000 wetlands worldwide, distinguishing between surface water- and groundwater-fed wetlands. Additionally, we account for a loss of vascular plant species in terrestrial ecosystems, based on precipitation. The characterization factors are expressed as global fractions of potential species extinctions (PDF) per cubic meter of water consumed annually and are developed with a spatial resolution of 0.05 arc degrees. Based on the geographic range of species, as well as their current threat level, as indicated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), we developed a vulnerability indicator that is included in the characterization factor.

Results and discussion

Characterization factors have maximal values in the order of magnitude of 10−11 PDF·year/m3 for animal taxa combined and 10−12 PDF·year/m3 for vascular plants. The application of the developed factors for global cultivation of wheat, maize, cotton, and rice highlights that the amount of water consumption alone is not sufficient to indicate the places of largest impacts but that species richness and vulnerability of species are indeed important factors to consider. Largest impacts are calculated for vascular plants in Madagascar, for maize, and for animal taxa; in Australia and the USA for surface water consumption (cotton); and in Algeria and Tunisia for groundwater consumption (cotton).


We developed a spatially differentiated approach to account for impacts from water consumption on a global level. We demonstrated its functionality with an application to a global case study of four different crops.


Animal taxa Biodiversity Life cycle impact assessment Spatially differentiated Vascular plants Water consumption Wetlands 

Supplementary material

11367_2016_1236_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (2.8 mb)
ESM 1 (PDF 2894 kb)
11367_2016_1236_MOESM2_ESM.xlsx (35 kb)
ESM 2 (XLSX 34 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Francesca Verones
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Stephan Pfister
    • 3
  • Rosalie van Zelm
    • 2
  • Stefanie Hellweg
    • 3
  1. 1.Industrial Ecology Programme, Department of Energy and Process EngineeringTrondheimNorway
  2. 2.Radboud University Nijmegen, Department of Environmental ScienceInstitute for Water and Wetland ResearchNijmegenThe Netherlands
  3. 3.ETH ZurichInstitute of Environmental EngineeringZurichSwitzerland

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