Addressing environmental sustainability of biochemicals

Abstract

Producing biochemicals from renewable resources is a key driver for moving towards sustainable societies. Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a standardized tool to measure related progress by quantifying environmental sustainability performance of chemical products along their life cycles. We analysed LCA studies applied to commercialized commodity biochemicals produced through microbial fermentation. The few available studies show inconsistencies in coverage of environmental impacts and life cycle stages, with varying conclusions. Claims of better sustainability performance of biochemicals over fossil-based chemicals are often based on comparing global warming impacts, while ignoring other impacts from bio-feedstock production. To boost sustainable biochemicals, we recommend that LCA practitioners include the broader range of impact indicators and entire life cycles, follow standards and guidance, and address missing data. The biochemical industry should systematically use LCA to direct research, identify impact hotspots, and develop methods to estimate full-scale process performance. This will promote biotechnology as important contributor to solving existing sustainability challenges.

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Fig. 1: Overview of seven existing LCA studies of succinic acid production with their respective life cycle stages and impact categories considered.
Fig. 2: Environmental impact comparison for chemicals with available data from published studies.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the EU FP7 project Biorefine 2G (grant 613771) and by the Novo Nordisk Foundation. We thank S. Sukumara, A. Garcia Sancho and N. Kirchhübel for input to an earlier manuscript draft.

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Ó.Ö. and P.F. organized and structured the work and wrote the manuscript. Ó.Ö. gathered, processed and visualized the data. P.F. contributed to data analysis and visualization, and provided overall guidance. M.J.H., J.F. and M.Z.H. provided background information and edited the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Peter Fantke.

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Ögmundarson, Ó., Herrgård, M.J., Forster, J. et al. Addressing environmental sustainability of biochemicals. Nat Sustain 3, 167–174 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0442-8

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