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The University of Southampton
Biological Sciences

Research project: A global framework for quantifying the ecosystem service impacts of oil and biofuel production

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The main objective of this 2 year project is to develop a way of comparing the impact on ecosystem services of two very different sources of transport fuel – biofuels and petroleum.

Transportation consumes the largest amount of energy in the UK (39% in terms of tonnes of oil equivalent in 2009, [1]) and 97% of that energy was supplied by crude oil [1]. Today slightly less than 80% of this crude oil comes from the North Sea (Norway and UK) with the rest being imported from much further afield (mainly Russia, the Middle East and Africa [2]). As production from North Sea fields declines, the UK will become increasingly dependent on importing crude oil for refining in the UK as well as pre-refined transport fuels. At the same time, liquid fuels will include increasing proportions of biofuels. 

There is increasing recognition that the environmental impacts of biofuel production vary considerably depending on how and where they are produced, and can even exceed the impacts of fossil fuels [5, 6]. In particular, a Swiss study [7] suggests that half of the biofuels considered have a greater aggregate environmental impact than conventional transport fuels, but most Life Cycle Analyses (LCAs) have failed to take these wide ecosystem effects into account.

While the above studies highlight the potential environmental impacts of utilizing different types of transport fuels, very little information exists about the ecosystem service impacts of transport fuel production in general, and - of particular relevance to policy - of the relative ecosystem service impacts of producing different types of transport fuels in different parts of the world. Such analyses are vital given the value ecosystem services - the benefits humans obtain from nature [8] - have to society. As the UK's reliance on imported transport fuels increases, it is likely that the UK's impact on ecosystem services outside the UK also increases. Recent work [9] has shown that while carbon emissions in the UK territory have recently decreased, this is largely due to exporting these emissions overseas, and that UK consumer emissions have actually increased if the carbon footprint of overseas production is included in calculations. If it is possible to identify the areas (and fuel types) where increases in overseas transport fuel production will have the least impact on ecosystem services, then this will enable the UK to prioritize future transport fuel imports from areas with low overall impacts on ecosystem services.

The overarching aim of this project is to develop a framework for quantifying the overseas ecosystem service impacts of transport fuel production used in the UK, in particular by comparing traditional oil production with biofuel production. The specific objectives of this project are twofold: 1) To map the potential ecosystem service impacts of oil and biofuel production globally; and 2) To quantify the sources and degree of uncertainty in the assessment of global ecosystem service impacts of transport fuel production.  We will meet Objective 1 through preliminary analyses that will allow the UK to identify the regions of the world that enable it to meet its transportation fuel demands with least impact on key ecosystems services. Objective 2 will include a variety of approaches, including more detailed case studies of one or more oil and biofuel production sites, quantitative reviews, as well as sensitivity analyses of the outputs of Objective 1. Our approach is spatially explicit, meaning we will be able to compare the ecosystem service impacts among the two types of transport fuel, as well as identifying the relative impacts of sourcing a given fuel type from different parts of the world.

This project is a collaboration between the University of Southampton and Imperial College London (Prof Ann Muggeridge, Dr Rob Ewers) , UNEP-WCMC (Dr Val Kapos) and Sussex (Dr Jorn Scharlemann). 

Funding: UK Energy Research Centre

September 2011 to April 2014


Related research groups

Environmental Biosciences
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