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Impacts of renewable materials

As the reserves of fossil fuels are dwindling and the awareness of climate change is growing, an increasing number of companies are looking for alternatives to materials derived from fossil fuels. Since bio-based raw materials are derived from plants which absorb carbon dioxide during their growth, they are often thought to have lower environmental impacts than petrochemically derived raw materials. However, bio-based raw materials are derived from agricultural systems, where land use change, fertilisers, diesel and energy use all contribute to climate change. Agriculture is also responsible for 70% of the world’s freshwater use and considerable biodiversity loss, while using up the reserves of non-renewable phosphorus.​

Environmental impacts of renewable raw materials are characterised by large variability. Feedstocks are typically sourced from a large number of farms and their impacts will be dependent on site-specific management practices and local ecosystems. Unlike industrial processing, agricultural production often occurs in the open field, where biophysical conditions such as soil and climate influence the efficiency of the system. Our scientific developments in this area are focused on: 1) tracking the locations and ‘inventorising’ practices of farmers within supply chains, 2) including all relevant ecosystem impacts and 3) predicting changes to agricultural production in the future, resulting from climate change and economic trends.​

As well as conducting our own research, we collaborate with leading Life Cycle Assessment and agricultural modelling experts from around the world. Recent examples include development of methods to quantify variability of impacts specific to our agri-supply chain. Furthermore, we are developing methods that utilise publicly available satellite data to provide spatially resolved assessment of land use change and resulting environmental impacts. We have also participated in development of models to quantify the emissions related to the wastewater treatment and the degradation of chemicals in the environment.​

In the medium to long term, we would like to improve methods for tracking and predicting the amounts and locations of land use change. We are also interested in spatially explicit methods for assessing impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services.