Uniqueness and diversity – measuring the value of nature

Research in focus October 2016

It’s a beautiful summer day and the colorful meadow invites you to lie down and let your mind drift peacefully. Surrounded by tall grasses gently swaying in the breeze, scented wild flowers and all kinds of greenery, you might notice a spider or two crawling around or hear the buzz of passing bumblebees as they fly from one nectar-bearing plant to another. A flowering meadow like this provides a habitat for far more wildlife than any freshly mown lawn ever could. Such examples of biodiversity interest not only biologists but also the scientists who work at the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics IBP. It is one of the topics they research in connection with Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) – foremost among them Dr. Jan Paul Lindner, a research associate in the institute’s Life Cycle Engineering department. “The diversity of biological life on our planet is highly complex, but that’s precisely what makes it so fascinating,” says the researcher, whose recently published dissertation focuses on this subject. Earth’s flora and fauna depends on the preservation of the diverse habitats that make up its many different ecosystems. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), to which Germany is a signatory, defines different categories of diversity including genetic diversity, species diversity, and the diversity of habitats and ecosystems. Taken together, these forms of diversity are our planet’s most valuable asset, helping to keep it habitable and supporting evolution. Biological diversity, or biodiversity, is equally important to humankind and the quality of human life on Earth. The food we eat, many of the medicines we use, and even certain technological innovations are derived from or inspired by nature. “The immaterial value of the natural environment is almost impossible to quantify, but it is an inestimably rich source of learning. The workings of ecosystems can teach us so much, not least because they have a powerful impact on our emotional wellbeing and nourish our sense of identity,” says Lindner, whose work as a research scientist extends beyond the purely material aspects of biodiversity.

Certainly, conserving biodiversity is one the most pressing goals to which all humans ought to aspire. But is there any way of putting a figure to the undoubtedly high value of this difficult-to-measure intangible asset? And what counts most? Is it untouched landscapes shaped purely by nature, or areas of land cultivated according to ancestral farming practices which, both in Europe and elsewhere, are increasingly the subject of conservation measures? And precisely what impact do human activities and man-made products have on nature? In his dissertation “Quantitative Darstellung der Wirkungen landnutzender Prozesse auf die Biodiversität in Ökobilanzen” (Quantitative description of the impact of land use processes on biodiversity in life cycle assessments), Lindner developed a method that integrates the important aspect of biodiversity in life cycle assessments. “Our use of land for industrial purposes, trade and commerce, production and waste disposal has different effects on biodiversity. Until now, there has been no systematic approach enabling us to assess these effects and model their impact on the environment from the beginning to end of a product’s lifetime as part of a life cycle assessment. Species density alone is an insufficiently accurate indicator of biodiversity,” says the sustainability expert, who has been studying LCA methods for the past ten years. “Our aim is to provide the industrial sector and public authorities with instruments with which to measure and manage the effects of their activities on biological diversity. It is in their own interests to improve the ecological quality of their products and processes. But in order to do so, they need to know where to apply what types of leverage to arrive at the best possible solutions in terms of environmental compatibility.”

To describe the impact on biodiversity at different stages of the value chain, Lindner takes the example of an apple pie. How much land is needed to grow the wheat, sugar and apples, what form of transportation is used to carry the produce from the field to the consumer, over what distance, and how much energy is consumed to transform the ingredients into the oven-fresh pie served up on our table? The numbers Lindner uses to quantify biodiversity basically consist of two variables. The first is a regional factor obtained by comparing effects according to so-called ecoregions (as defined by Olson and the World Wide Fund for Nature, [1]). It is based on information concerning or relating to the distribution of species across different ecoregions of the world, enabling a more precise estimation of the effects of human activity on biodiversity.

The second variable concerns the abundance or rarity of species in a given region. Lindner characterizes the biodiversity of each ecoregion on the basis of an average of ten parameters. These include changes in the range of specific flora and fauna caused by direct human intervention in their natural habitat, climate change, competition by invasive species, environmental pollution and related diseases, and the depletion of natural resources. Possible contributing factors are the utilization of fertilizers or the harvesting of biomass such as timber. As the next step, a group of experts consisting of scientists, policy-makers, social dignitaries, the business community and environmental organizations evaluates each factor in terms of its impact on local biodiversity. Lindner combines all of this information in a single calculation tool. Effects such as biomass extraction or the input of fertilizers and pesticides are placed on a scale between 0 (maximum) and 1 (minimum) impact, and compared with balancing factors such as the volume or age of deadwood. If, for instance, a value of 0.81 is calculated for a specific area, this means that it has retained between 81 and 100 percent of its potential biodiversity or, contrarily, it has lost 19 percent of its biodiversity and has therefore been damaged to this extent.

The result after evaluating and weighing up these diverse factors is a mathematical formula that can be used to determine the total effect on biodiversity. Every industrial process that consumes land in a specific region results in a deviation from the reference value indicating the least possible impact on biodiversity in that region. Each percentage point lower than 100 provides an indicator of the process’s impact on regional biodiversity. The researcher is continuing to develop and refine his method through case studies and investigating its practical applications in ongoing communication with partners in the forestry, mining and food industries and environmental protection organizations. “Our next goal is to establish this methodological framework as a recognized international standard, allowing it to be integrated in life cycle assessment tools capable of producing results that take complexity into account without overstepping the limits of tolerable deviations,” says Lindner, summing up his approach.

This consistent dedication to a single issue, namely biodiversity and LCA, has enabled Lindner to continue along his chosen path. With the support of the Dr. Erich Ritter Foundation, he is currently leading a junior research group studying ways of evaluating biodiversity in complex value chains as part of the BioWert project. Lindner also has other ideas that he hopes to develop in the future. “One of my objectives is to enhance life cycle assessment by adding social aspects such as working conditions.” Another is to integrate the results of this research more closely with agricultural ecology. The available cartographic material already represents a storehouse of valuable data that could be used by companies to improve their environmental management. The benefit is that process analyses, method descriptions and detailed studies would be conducted according to standards that are not only environmentally friendly and attuned to nature but also aim to conserve biodiversity.

Earth’s natural world represents numerous values to which, in some cases, our land use is causing extensive damage. To be able to determine how much pressure can be withstood by the ecosystems in which we live, Lindner has developed this structurally complex method. Each action will lead to different effects which it is often not possible to record and describe in full, neither in a global sense nor as a network of interacting causes and effects. Lindner is therefore looking for practicable solutions that meet general consensus on how best to record and quantify the effects of products, processes and services on biological diversity. He points out that people commonly assume that “natural” always means “good,” but that this kind of universal ethical view doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny.

As a passionate scientist, Lindner would love to achieve more. “I find life cycle assessment a fascinating subject because so many new approaches are born in the interstices of technology and philosophy. When it comes to conserving biodiversity, the affinity between the two disciplines is particularly striking. I’m convinced that our welfare and future depend on how well we manage to combine technological progress with a caring attitude toward the environment.”


[1]: Olson, David M., et al. “Terrestrial Ecoregions of the World: A New Map of Life on Earth.” BioScience 51.11 (2001): 933-938. http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/51/11/933.short

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