National environmental footprints and planetary boundaries: from methodology to policy implementation 59th LCA forum, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zürich, June 12, 2015

  • Rolf Frischknecht
  • Philippe Stolz
  • Laura Tschümperlin


The 59th LCA forum was held on 12 June, 2015 to discuss the situation with regard to national environmental footprints and their relation to planetary boundaries and to the global carrying capacity. This conference report presents the highlights of the LCA forum. Several approaches of how to quantify a safe operating space of the Earth were presented, such as the planetary boundary concept published by Rockström et al. (Nature 462:472–475, 2009) and the ecological footprint (Bastianoni et al. 2013). Several presenters showed how they transformed environmental planetary boundaries to national and per capita allowances. In a research project funded by the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment safe and unsafe areas were determined by combining the level of overshoot, the level of confidence in the information and the trend in the environmental load. The areas of climate change, biodiversity losses and nitrogen losses show a large overshoot on a global level but also from the point of view of Swiss consumption. Other organizations use the planetary boundary concept to identify companies which qualify for environmentally sustainable funds. Finally, life cycle impact assessment methods are being developed using the planetary boundary concept. The weighting step is based on the level of overshoot, which is close to “distance to target” approaches. It was discussed that the nine planetary boundaries face some consistency and operationalisation problems. For instance, land use changes cause biodiversity losses, which is a planetary boundary parameter in its own. Chemical pollution on the other hand is a general topic, for which a quantification approach has to be developed first (load as well as its planetary boundary). The discussion forum showed that individual countries and political entities like the European Union start monitoring their consumption based environmental footprint. Within this context, approaches and concepts are needed to define the environmentally safe operating space. The LCA forum showed that there is still basic research needed to reliably and consistently quantify relevant planetary boundaries (avoiding overlapping indicators) and to transfer these boundaries to per capita allowances.

1 Introduction and overview

The 59th LCA forum was opened with a welcome address given by Rolf Frischknecht (treeze Ltd., Switzerland). He mentioned that in the middle age people were afraid of planetary boundaries when sailing across the sea, until Magellan proved the spherical shape of the Earth with its circumnavigation. Nearly 500 years later, the fragile Earth came to the attention of society due to “earthrise” pictures taken during the NASA missions to the Moon and finally with the publication by Rockström et al. (2009) on planetary boundaries which launched a discussion on the quantification of a safe and sustainable operating space for human society. In a first session, the planetary boundary concept was introduced and examples of its application on nations and regions were shown (Section 2). The speakers of the second session presented examples of implementing the planetary boundary concept in public, corporate and product policies (Section 3). A third session dealt with the quantification of national environmental footprints, one prerequisite to evaluate whether or not a nation lives within its planetary boundaries (Section 4). Finally, the questions on environmental priority areas, on future needs in administration and industry and on an appropriate aggregation level were discussed in three parallel workshops (Section 5) and preliminary conclusions were drawn in the final plenary discussion (Section 6).

2 Planetary boundary concept

Dieter Gerten (Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany) gave an introduction of the planetary boundary concept introduced by Rockström et al. (2009) and further refined by Steffen et al. (2015). He showed how many environmental indicators such as the percentage of domesticated land or the amount of water use increased dramatically since 1750 and sometimes even more since 1950. Planetary boundaries were defined for nine interacting earth system processes, namely climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosol loading, ocean acidification, biogeochemical flows, chemical pollution, land use change, biodiversity loss, and freshwater use. The planetary boundaries define the safe operating space with a zone of uncertainty. The research on planetary boundaries is ongoing, refining their definitions. The presenter showed the example of the water use planetary boundary which may actually be significantly lower than currently communicated. This finding is a result of a more detailed, regionalised assessment of water use and availability. He also highlighted the planetary boundary opportunities such as technical innovation or improved resource use efficiency.

Damien Friot (Shaping Environmental Action, Switzerland) and Hy Dao (UNEP/GRID, Switzerland) presented the results of an assessment of the environmental limits and footprints of Swiss consumption (Dao et al. 2015). They defined the share of the global safe operating space of an earth system process and compared it with the current Swiss country footprint. For that purpose, they first selected the relevant planetary boundaries and indicators, then quantified the global and Swiss national performance and finally carried out a priority assessment. Three different types of planetary boundaries were identified: global issues with global limits such as climate change, regional issues with a global cumulated limit such as nitrogen loss, land cover anthropisation or biodiversity loss, and finally regional issues with a regional limit such as freshwater use or atmospheric aerosol loading. The environmental budgets were allocated on a per capita basis (default). Four different performance categories (clearly safe, safe, unsafe, clearly unsafe) were defined depending on the level of overshoot (“no overshoot”, “small to medium overshoot” and “large overshoot”), the confidence in the score (high versus medium to low) and the trend (slow evolution versus rapidly deteriorating). Climate change, biodiversity loss, nitrogen loss and ocean acidification caused by Swiss consumption are clearly unsafe, whereas land cover anthropisation is unsafe and the state of phosphorus losses is unknown (missing data). Finally, they introduced the bluedot project,1 which aims at a classification of 48 countries with respect to their overall performance (planetary boundaries versus environmental footprints).

Friedrich Hinterberger (SERI, Austria) talked about targets for the use of the resource materials, water and land, which are being defined within the IntRESS project.2 The material consumption is expressed in “Total Material Consumption”, an indicator aggregating the mass of the materials. He proposes a global target of 45 billion tons of materials per year, which is 50 % of the current consumption. The targets for land use and water use were not yet defined.

Malgorzata Goralczyk (DG-JRC, Italy) presented the results of the analysis of the environmental impacts of consumption of the European Union following a life cycle approach and complying with the EU strategies on natural resources, integrated product policy communication, and prevention and recycling of wastes. The environmental impacts from 2000 to 2010 of imports to and exports from 10 selected member states as well as the domestic environmental impacts within EU27 were quantified. The level of impacts seems rather stable or slightly diminishing in the 10 years period assessed. She then presented the results of the food basket of product assessment, where the environmental impacts of the main and representative food products are quantified using product life cycle assessments. Meat and dairy products proved to be the most important product categories with agriculture and industrial processing being the most important phases.

3 Implementation in public, corporate and product policy

Andreas Hauser (BAFU, Switzerland) explained the motivation of Swiss environmental policy in planetary boundaries emphasising that the consumption-based environmental impacts, in particular the greenhouse gas emissions or the biodiversity losses due to land use abroad, are on the rise. The relevant question is about a sustainable level or safe operating space and its translation to a national footprint perspective, which may be used in the environment protection act (currently under revision). He pointed out to ethical questions related to responsibility and fair shares as well as to practical questions about the feasibility and effectiveness of (voluntary) measures.

Christoph Butz (Pictet Asset Management, Switzerland) and Jürg Liechti (Neosys, Switzerland) presented an approach which implements the planetary boundary principles on the company level. Sectorial benchmarks are defined using environmentally extended input output tables (EIOT) with which the environmental impacts per 1 Mio. US-$ are being quantified. Next, a bridge is built from the indicators used in the EIOT and the nine planetary boundary dimensions. The company specific planetary boundaries are then defined per Mio. $ turnover. The rating scale finally uses a lognormal function and is normalised with the safe operating space of the nine planetary boundary dimensions. Production adjustments are used in case the activities of a company are not well reflected in the EIOT. The results are finally displayed in a spider diagram (9 axes) on a scale which typically spreads from minus 3 to plus 5, the safe operating space extending up to 3.6. The tool is used at Pictet Asset Management for low footprint investments and is continuously being updated and refined, in particular with regard to the aerosol loadings and chemical pollution dimensions.

Gabor Doka (DOKA LCA, Switzerland) presented a tentative implementation of Rockström’s planetary boundaries as life cycle impact assessment method (Doka 2015). He linked the global limits as expressed by Rockström et al. (2009) to personal annual emission allowances under the premise of 10 billion humans living on Earth. For instance, the maximum (planetary boundary) atmospheric CO2 concentration of 350 ppm is transformed to an allowance of 1.15 ton of CO2-eq. per person and year. He established own derived emission allowances in cases where no planetary boundary was defined such as particulate matter emissions. Doka used the actual emission situation and compared it to WHO air quality guideline values arriving at about 1.5 kg PM10-eq. per person and year. He finally compared the environmental impacts of the average annual consumption of a Swiss citizen and of himself with the planetary boundaries. The planetary boundaries of aerosols, climate change, nitrogen flow, biodiversity loss and phosphorous flow were exceeded.

4 National environmental footprints

The afternoon session was opened by Michel Gressot (Global Footprint Network, Geneva). Starting from the fact that the ecological footprint of Switzerland is largely overrun and thus Switzerland’s performance is clearly unsafe, he presented various options for the Swiss sustainable development policy, namely (1) Retreat from the World (safe by quitting cut-throat competition), (2) Embrace Hyper-Growth (safe by outperforming others for ever), (3) Hedge your Bets! (safe by relying on emergency savings), (4) Less Butter, More Post-Oil Infrastructure (safe by investing now and ahead of others), and (5) Forge Privileged Resource Relationships (safe by courting the resource-rich). He considers none of them being an obvious nor a better fix than the usual ones proposed by mainstream economists (substitute high price resources, international trade, technology, high income). He finally emphasised that the ‘Klimawende’ is the mother of all U-turns (on energy and resources).

Rolf Frischknecht (treeze, Switzerland) presented the results of a study quantifying the global environmental impacts of Swiss consumption and production from 1996 to 2011 (Frischknecht et al. 2014). Quantification of environmental impacts of Swiss consumption is one of the measures of the Swiss Federal Policy action plan ‘green economy’. The analysis combines trade statistics with product life cycle assessment data to quantify the environmental impacts of imports and exports. The domestic environmental impacts are quantified using environmental statistics. In the presentation he focused on (marine) eutrophication impacts caused by nitrogen (compounds) showing a decrease of domestic but an increase of foreign eutrophying impacts. Since 2007, the impacts caused by imports surpass the domestic impacts. He then proposed a differentiated planetary boundary for eutrophication caused by Swiss consumption using the domestic environmental legislation on domestic emissions and the reduction requirement derived from data published by Steffen et al. (2015) for foreign emissions caused by traded goods. While the domestic emissions should be lowered by 40 %, the global emissions need to be reduced by 82 %.

Arnold Tukker (Centre for Environmental Sciences, Leiden, The Netherlands) presented the latest results from multi-regional input output frameworks. He started with some thoughts on 2050 footprint limits on greenhouse gas emissions, water, land and materials and listed environmental policies from Europe and Asia aiming at a decoupling of economic growth and environmental impacts. Such a decoupling requires monitoring for which Exiobase, multi regional input output tables, are being developed. Results of the analysis of 40 countries and several dozens of environmental indicators show that Europe is the only continent that is dependent on imported footprints regarding each of the indicators carbon, water, land and materials (Tukker et al. 2014). During the 11 years analysed, the footprints were rising, in particular the footprints embodied in trade. Tukker also showed that rich countries tend to have high footprints but that high footprints are not essential for human wellbeing as he observed rather stable human development indices (HDI) above a certain threshold.

5 Workshops

After the presentations, the following three topics were discussed in workshop groups:
  • A: environmental priority areas

  • B: future needs in administration and industry

  • C: appropriate aggregation level

  1. A:
    The consumption areas nutrition, housing and mobility were mutually considered high priority for (voluntary) action. Additionally, areas with high market growth potential such as consumer electronics and imported goods in general were mentioned. A matrix was developed identifying potential for (voluntary) action to reduce the climate footprint (see Table 1), the nitrogen and the biodiversity footprint.
    Table 1

    Areas of action related to reducing the carbon footprint

    Area of action




    Palm oil


    Increase share of sustainably grown palm oil




    Substitution; more efficient production of dairy products and meat

    Nutrition, diet, reduce food waste


    Use LCA to assess scope 3 emissions

    Communicate to consumers


    Food general


    Reduce food losses

    Diets and food loss



    Motivate to use international trains

    Motivate to fly less

  2. B:
    The discussion focused on the rating scheme used at Pictet Asset Management and presented during the morning. The banking institute is happy with the current planetary boundary concept being a scientifically based reference system. The scheme is applied to the entire universe of companies. There are no black lists or criteria for a priori exclusion. The following challenges were identified when applying the planetary boundary concept in company sustainability ratings:
    • How to deal with sustainability intensifiers such as genetically modified organisms (GMO)

    • Logarithmic scale to level out the results (reduce outliers)

    • No information on regional planetary boundaries, in particular regarding water footprints

    • Assessment of a company should be done in distinctly less than an hour

    Scope 4 impacts (quantifying the environmental savings due to the use of a specific product instead of a mainstream product) are only taken into account if well documented and approved in the GRI report of the company under assessment. In order to assess the planetary boundaries of a company, it has to provide tailored information.

  3. C:

    It was concluded that a number of planetary boundaries need to be regionalised (such as the boundaries on water use, nitrogen flows or aerosols). It was recommended to use UNcom trade statistics in particular to identify trade of agricultural products which cause large water and land footprints. It may be different for products such as cars. For the indicators materials as well as climate change (carbon footprint), further details are needed.


6 Plenary discussion and conclusions

Rolf Frischknecht summarised that the planetary boundary concept is attractive and gets more and more applied in an LCA context. It seems applicable to countries, companies and private households. The planetary boundary concept does however not avoid trade-offs between different environmental threats. Finally, it was nicely shown that the planetary boundary concept is close to the ecological footprint concept which can be seen as the mother of all environmental footprint indicators being developed.

Table 2 shows the yearly per capita allowances according to own calculations done by several presenters at the LCA forum. The allowances differ substantially, not only regarding water use or land occupation but also regarding greenhouse gas emissions. Nitrogen losses (and emissions) show the lowest spread.
Table 2

Yearly per capita allowances of greenhouse gas emissions, water use, land occupation and nitrogen emissions (or losses) according to calculations done by several presenters


Doka 2015

Dao et al. 2015




1150 kg CO2-eq.

600 kg CO2-eq.

2000–2500 kg CO2-eq.



400 m3


150 m3



1995 m2 cropland

2770 m2 anthropised land

9000–10,000 m2



3.5 kg N

6.8 kg N loss


5.2 kg N-eq.

The LCA forum showed that there is still basic research needed to reliably and consistently quantify relevant planetary boundaries (avoiding overlapping indicators) and to transfer these boundaries to per capita allowances.



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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rolf Frischknecht
    • 1
  • Philippe Stolz
    • 1
  • Laura Tschümperlin
    • 1
  1. 1.treeze Ltd.UsterSwitzerland

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