Environmental Sustainability Attributes of Biomass

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) has commissioned the CIRAIG to conduct a study on the environmental and social sustainability attributes of purpose grown biomass (miscanthus, switchgrass, polyculture native grasses, willow, poplar) and crop residues (corn stover, wheat straw), and to elaborate a sustainability framework based on the Ontario environmental farm plan platform. Envisioned end-use of biomass is primarily energy (e.g. as a substitute for natural gas), but also green chemicals (e.g. succinic acid), or processed bio-products (e.g. for the processed wood market). This report focuses on how life cycle assessment (LCA) methodology could help evaluate biomass environmental and socio-economic attributes within the context of current regulatory and commercial sustainability schemes.

A literature review was performed from several perspectives. The first was to review the existing standards, initiatives and programs (SIPs) for the sustainability certification of agricultural biomass and to identify the attributes they are addressing. Most SIPs are actually related to the use of biomass for energy purpose, mainly biofuels. In relation to the requirements of the SIP identified, another perspective was to evaluate the capabilities and the current shortcomings of LCA methodologies, as well as the availability of data for LCA that are representative of the Ontario context. Even though LCA goes beyond climate change assessment (i.e. carbon footprinting), emphasis is put on the capability to account for local climate-related and soil-related specificities for a robust assessment of agricultural greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions and of the relevance of a carbon offset protocol. In order to identify the relevant stakeholders’ categories and the socio-economic attributes of sustainability of purpose grown agricultural biomass, this literature review also aims at following and adapting the Guidelines for Social Life Cycle Assessment of Products published by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in collaboration with the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) in 2009. More precisely, the review focused on the stakeholder categories and the social issues of concern (subcategories) that are relevant to agricultural biomass production, but that are not actually covered by the Guidelines and also used academic papers as well as existing voluntary or mandatory sustainability standards relevant for biomass production to complement the Guidelines.