The Science of the total environment, 367(1):367-82, 8, 2006. Paper Website abstract bibtex
The challenge for environmental assessment tools, such as Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is to provide a holistic picture of the environmental impacts of a given system, while being relevant both at a global scale, i.e., for global impact categories such as climate change, and at a smaller scale, i.e., for regional impact categories such as aquatic eutrophication. To this end, the environmental mechanisms between emission and impact should be taken into account. For eutrophication in particular, which is one of the main impacts of farming systems, the fate factor of eutrophying pollutants in catchments, and particularly of nitrate, reflects one of these important and complex environmental mechanisms. We define this fate factor as: the ratio of the amount of nitrate at the outlet of the catchment over the nitrate emitted from the catchment's soils. In LCA, this fate factor is most often assumed equal to 1, while the observed fate factor is generally less than 1. A generic approach for estimating the range of variation of nitrate fate factors in a region of intensive agriculture was proposed. This approach was based on the analysis of different catchment scenarios combining different catchment types and different effective rainfalls. The evolution over time of the nitrate fate factor as well as the steady state fate factor for each catchment scenario was obtained using the INCA simulation model. In line with the general LCA model, the implications of the steady state fate factors for nitrate were investigated for the eutrophication impact result in the framework of an LCA of pig production. A sensitivity analysis to the fraction of nitrate lost as N(2)O was presented for the climate change impact category. This study highlighted the difference between the observed fate factor at a given time, which aggregates both storage and transformation processes and a "steady state fate factor", specific to the system considered. The range of steady state fate factors obtained for the study region was wide, from 0.44 to 0.86, depending primarily on the catchment type and secondarily on the effective rainfall. The sensitivity of the LCA of pig production to the fate factors was significant concerning eutrophication, but potentially much larger concerning climate change. The potential for producing improved eutrophication results by using spatially differentiated fate factors was demonstrated. Additionally, the urgent need for quantitative studies on the N(2)O/N(2) ratio in riparian zones denitrification was highlighted.