Turning the Emerald Isle greener: measuring the bioeconomy’s environmental sustainability

Have you ever wondered if Ireland could become even greener, where fresh innovations actively contribute to the well-being of our planet? Were you aware that the “bioeconomy” holds the key to transforming Ireland into a shining beacon of green innovation? Brace yourself for an environmental metamorphosis that is placing Ireland at the frontier of an environmental revolution. In this blog, we’ll explore how we ensure that every bio-based product or service, and every transformation undertaken, doesn’t just talk the talk but walks the walk towards genuine environmentally friendliness. Buckle up, because this journey is about to redefine what it means to be truly green!

 What is the bioeconomy and why is it important?

The bioeconomy might sound complicated due to its large variety of definitions, but at its core, the bioeconomy is an economic system that focuses on using renewable biological resources, such as plants and microorganisms, to create products, generate energy, provide services (such as climate change mitigation), and promote sustainability. It’s about harnessing the power of nature in a way that is environmentally friendly, reducing dependence on finite resources like fossil fuels, and supporting a circular economy where we minimise waste and maximise the use of biological materials. This approach not only addresses environmental challenges but also opens doors to new economic opportunities, stimulating innovation, and facilitating job creation.

The following three examples showcase a brief glimpse into the versatility of the bioeconomy and its potential to replace or complement traditional products in various industries, while offering environmental benefits:

Grass, one of Ireland’s most abundant resources, can be made into a sustainable powerhouse through a grass biorefinery. This innovative process converts the grass into valuable bio-based products such as fuels, chemicals, feed, and materials.

Bioplastics can be sourced from a variety of feedstocks, including corn, food waste, microalgae, sugarcane, and others, transforming the landscape of plastic production. These alternatives to traditional fossil-based plastics offer a sustainable solution to the environmental challenges posed by conventional materials, such as the ability of many bioplastics to be fully compostable!

Forestry is a key player in climate change mitigation, acting as a vital carbon sink while providing sustainable wood resources. Managed responsibly, forests offer renewable timber for construction and wood-based materials, contributing to lower environmental footprints compared to alternative materials like concrete and steel.

How do we measure environmental impact?

How do we really know if our efforts towards sustainability are making a positive impact? Sure, making eco-friendly choices sounds great, but how do we ensure we’re not just swapping one environmental issue for another?

Life Cycle Assessment, or LCA, is a tool that helps us understand and measure the environmental impacts of a product from its creation to its disposal. Think about a simple item, like a bottle of water. LCA looks at the entire life cycle of that bottle – from extracting and processing the raw materials, manufacturing the bottle, transporting it to the store, using it, and finally, disposing of it. At each stage, LCA takes into account the energy consumed, the emissions produced, and the resources used, providing a comprehensive, numerical evaluation of the product’s overall environmental performance.

You might be familiar with the concept of a carbon footprint, which measures a product’s contribution to global warming. LCA, however, takes it a step further. It considers numerous impact categories such as acidification, eutrophication, resource depletion, ozone depletion, and more, offering a holistic view of a product’s environmental implications.

Why is this important? Well, by understanding the environmental impact of products, we can make better choices. LCA helps us identify ways to reduce pollution, save energy, and use resources more efficiently. It’s like giving us a roadmap to create and use products that are kinder to the planet. Imagine you’re deciding between two products on the store shelf, LCA allows you to make a more informed choice by considering not only the price and quality of the product, but also its environmental impact. It’s about making choices that are not just good for us but also for the world we live in.

The impacts are not always so obvious!

In the intricate web of our bioeconomy the full magnitude of impacts are not always evident at first glance. Take, for instance, the seemingly eco-friendly choice of producing bioplastics from corn. The raw materials are renewable, the bioplastic can replace fossil-based counterparts, and it’s industrially compostable at the end of its life – all seemingly great points. Yes, the product carries emissions from fertiliser and pesticide use, harvesting, plastic production, transportation, etc., but these are not sources of major concern in themselves.

However, the real complexity arises when we zoom out to observe the indirect effects of our decisions. Imagine a scenario where a substantial chunk of agricultural land is redirected for bioplastic corn production. The apparent gain in renewable resources might lead to an unseen consequence – a reduction in available land for other crucial purposes, such as food production. Should the competing demand for this land remain, this shift in land use could trigger changes in agricultural practices, potentially resulting in global deforestation to create more agricultural land elsewhere, or alterations in food production dynamics. Thus, creating a considerable environmental impact greater than originally thought.

This is where Consequential LCA, a specific methodology within the broader LCA framework, becomes invaluable. Going beyond the immediate impacts, Consequential LCA requires us to take a step back and contemplate the future wider ramifications of our choices on a global scale. By understanding the indirect consequences, including inter-system and market effects, this methodology provides us with a more accurate and comprehensive perspective. It empowers us to make informed decisions about the bioeconomy, considering the broader environmental impacts of our choices, ensuring that every choice made is leading Ireland in the right direction – towards a climate-neutral circular bioeconomy!

The Bio-ERA Framework

The INFORMBIO project has developed a tool to provide critical-support for stakeholders seeking to develop new bio-based products in a sustainable manner. The Bio-ERA Framework (Bio-based feedstock Environmental Risk Assessment Framework) can help any organisation identify potential risks associated with increasing the demand for specific biomasses needed to develop bioeconomy products. Rooted in Consequential LCA thinking, the Bio-ERA Framework follows a structured approach that culminates in an overall environmental risk score for seven environmental aspects: Finite Resource Inputs, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Air Quality, Water Quality, Ecosystem Diversity, Terrestrial Carbon Storage, and Indirect Land Use Change. This scoring system is based on two key factors: the Probability and the Severity of environmental impact.

Click here to explore the intricate details of the Bio-ERA Framework and see its application in biochar production scenarios!

About the Author

Dr. George Bishop is a Post Doctoral Researcher at the University of Galway, and LCA analyst on INFORMBIO. His primary research pursuits revolve around using forward-looking LCA to explore and understand the complex systems transformation necessary to achieve climate neutrality and bioeconomy ambitions. His past work has evaluated the environmental sustainability of various bio-based systems, including bioproducts, bioenergy, waste management, and national agriculture and land-use.