The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment

, Volume 20, Issue 10, pp 1364–1375 | Cite as

Attributional life cycle assessment: is a land-use baseline necessary?

  • Sampo SoimakallioEmail author
  • Annette Cowie
  • Miguel Brandão
  • Göran Finnveden
  • Tomas Ekvall
  • Martin Erlandsson
  • Kati Koponen
  • Per-Erik Karlsson



This paper aims to clarify the application of a land-use baseline in attributional life cycle assessment (ALCA) for product systems involving land use, through consideration of the fundamental purpose of ALCA. Currently, there is no clear view in the literature whether a baseline should be used when accounting for environmentally relevant physical flows related to land use.


An extensive search of literature was carried out using the key terms ‘attributional life cycle assessment’ and ‘attributional LCA’ in the Google Scholar web search engine. Approximately 700 publications were reviewed and summarised according to their type and scope, relevance of land use, key statements and references given for ALCA, and arguments for and against using a baseline in ALCA. Based on the literature review and supplementary literature references, a critical discussion on the use of a baseline and determination of the most appropriate land-use baseline in ALCA is provided.

Results and discussion

A few studies clearly argued that only absolute (observable) flows without a baseline are to be inventoried in ALCA, while the majority of the studies did not make any clear statement for or against. On the other hand, a land-use baseline was explicitly applied or proposed in a minority of the studies only, despite the fact that we classified land use as highly relevant for the majority of the studies reviewed. Furthermore, the LCA guidelines reviewed give contradictory recommendations. The most cited studies for the definition of ALCA provide general rules for selecting processes based on observable flows but do not argue that observable flows necessarily describe the environmentally relevant physical flows.


We conclude that a baseline is required to separate the studied parts of the technosphere from natural processes and to describe the impact of land use on ecosystem quality, such as carbon sequestration and biodiversity. The most coherent baseline for human-induced land-use in ALCA is natural regeneration. As the natural-regeneration baseline has typically been excluded, may vary bio-geographically and temporally, and is subject to uncertainties, case studies applying it should be performed so that implications can be studied and evaluated. This is particularly important for agricultural and forestry systems, such as food, feed, fibre, timber and biofuels.


Absolute emission Attributional LCA Baseline Environmentally relevant physical flow Land use Natural regeneration 



The authors are grateful for the three anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments on the manuscript. Sampo Soimakallio would like to thank Maj and Tor Nessling Foundation for financing.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

11367_2015_947_MOESM1_ESM.xlsx (198 kb)
ESM 1 (XLSX 197 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sampo Soimakallio
    • 1
    Email author
  • Annette Cowie
    • 2
  • Miguel Brandão
    • 3
  • Göran Finnveden
    • 4
  • Tomas Ekvall
    • 5
  • Martin Erlandsson
    • 6
  • Kati Koponen
    • 7
  • Per-Erik Karlsson
    • 5
  1. 1.Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE), Climate Change ProgrammeHelsinkiFinland
  2. 2.NSW Department of Primary IndustriesUniversity of New EnglandArmidaleAustralia
  3. 3.IEA Bioenergy Task 38BarcelonaSpain
  4. 4.Division of Environmental Strategies Research (fms), Department of Sustainable Development, Environmental Sciences and EngineeringSchool of Architecture and the Built Environment, KTH Royal Institute of TechnologyStockholmSweden
  5. 5.IVL Swedish Environmental Research InstituteGöteborgSweden
  6. 6.IVL Swedish Environmental Research InstituteStockholmSweden
  7. 7.VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, Energy SystemsEspooFinland

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