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Christine Costello — 2008-09 Fellow

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  • Department: Civil and Environmental Engineering
  • Advised by: H. Scott Matthews and Michael Griffin
  • Project Title: Development of a Land Use Inventory and Metric for Life Cycle Assessment
  • Christine Costello's Research Summary

Land use and land use change (LU/LUC) are important considerations in sustainable development that have not been adequately studied. While concerns have been voiced regarding urban sprawl and impacts to the natural environment, e.g., global climate change and eutrophication of water bodies, few methods have been developed to consider LU/LUC at a systems level. Environmental researchers have begun to explore the importance of LU/LUC in relation to other systems, such as energy or transportation infrastructure and thus there is a need for a consistent metric and evaluation method. Life cycle assessment has proven to be a useful framework for considering the total environmental impacts associated with many goods and services. Completion of a LU inventory and development of methods to accurately include LU in a life cycle assessment will permit an in-depth analysis of LU for many sustainability research questions, particularly sustainability assessment of food, competing uses of arable land, and the overall effects of increasing populations.

This project will develop a method for the inclusion of LU in life cycle assessment. An inventory of LU in the United States will be created based on publicly available data that will assign the land used to produce commodities to the economic sectors of the U.S. economy. This data will then be incorporated into an economic input-output life cycle assessment (EIO-LCA) framework to evaluate the importance of LU in the supply chain of commodity production, both inside and outside the geographical U.S. Upon completion of the model a selection of relevant case studies will be considered. Specifically, we will quantify the range of additional land both within and external to the US required to meet food, feed, bio-based fuel and export production goals under a variety of future demand scenarios for these products. Secondly we will estimate the actual land required to support the consumption of the top twenty Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the US, with a specific focus on food consumption patterns and their trends, given that land used to produce food is by far the largest land use category. This will also be a useful study to show the different LU impacts of potential future dietary trends, i.e., as populations become more affluent they tend to consume larger quantities of land-intensive meat products.

A conceptual schematic of this model is shown in the slide also found on this webpage. We use the terms “production” and “consumption,” a perspective common in life cycle assessment and climate change literatures. In these perspectives, land is allocated either to the direct productive use, such as rangeland, grain production, or urban developments, or to the final product or service delivered to consumers, such as food, biofuels, the export market, or non-food goods produced using the land. Maximum boundaries on area available for various potential production uses, particularly agricultural commodities, will be defined using land capability classes (i.e., arable or not) defined by the National Resources Conservation Service dataset. The model will be constrained to actual land available within the US according to land type; therefore the results will include limitations for future land use scenarios. In the event that the US decreases exports or demand of land exceeds that available within its borders land use in other nations will increase to meet the demand deficit. The potential magnitude of such external land use demand will be modeled using multiregional input-output techniques and international agricultural data (i.e., crop yield).