Sustainability science is a solution-oriented discipline that studies the complex relationship between nature and humankind, conciliating the mutually influenced scientific and social reference paradigms, and covering multi-temporal and spatial scales. The discipline takes a holistic approach so as to capitalise on and integrate sectorial knowledge, methodologies and a variety of epistemic and normative stances towards defining solutions.
The EU Sustainable Development Strategy (SDS) calls for an impact assessment of all major policy proposals vis-à-vis sustainability objectives, and a review schedule against which to assess progress towards defined goals. In this context, the development of a robust framework for sustainability assessment is of paramount importance.
The JRC is actively contributing to the international discourse on sustainability science via the development of methodological frameworks for integrated sustainability assessment, uncertainty assessment, and by the mainstreaming of life cycle thinking in the appraisal of policies, plans and interventions. The JRC contributes to the theory and related specific methodologies, models, tools and indicators for sustainability assessment. These are used to define and evaluate the relationships between environmental, social and economic processes in order to optimise socio-economic outcomes within the context of resource and environmental constraints.
Land-Use based Integrated Sustainability Assessment (LUISA) modelling platform
Based upon the principle that changes in the cover and use of the surface of the Earth depend on natural processes and are, at the same time, shaped by demographic, economic, cultural, political, and technological drivers, the JRC has developed the Land Use Modelling Platform (LUMP) and its successor, the Land-Use based Integrated Sustainability Assessment (LUISA) modelling platform and analytical framework, to assess the consequences of policies that have direct or indirect spatial impacts. The platform supports the policy design of different services of the European Commission and provides a comprehensive, consistent and harmonised analysis of the impacts of policies and/or specific proposals in the context of environmental and socio-economic changes in Europe. LUMP and LUISA are based on the combination of a spatially explicit land use model with other modelling activities in thematic fields such as hydrology, agriculture, economy, forestry, etc.
LUMP and LUISA have been continuously applied in ex-ante and ex-post impact assessments of European policies and related initiatives. To date, they have been applied for the following:
- Integrated Coastal Zone Management
- Common Agricultural Policy
- Blueprint to Safeguard Europe's Water Resources
- Resource efficiency
- Shale gas extraction
Further applications are currently being conducted in the fields of energy, regional and cohesion policies, the bio-economy, and adaptation to climate change.
Land-Use based Integrated Sustainability Assessment modelling platform
Regional Dimension of Sustainable Development
The Regional Policy of the European Union is an investment policy in support of the Europe 2020 strategy. It supports job creation, competitiveness, economic growth, and improved quality of life. EU funding is also invested in innovation, the development of new products and production methods, energy efficiency and tackling climate change. As such, EU regional policies are at the core of any sustainable development strategy. They promote principles and criteria using a bottom-up approach, i.e. from the well-being of each citizen to wider cohesion at the continental scale.
The Communication from the Commission on Regional Policy contributing to sustainable growth in Europe 2020 proposes a two-pillar approach to increase the contribution of Regional Policy to resource efficiency. Regional Policy has co-financed environmental infrastructures, while the Cohesion and Structural funds are invested in environmental programmes.
The JRC supports the analysis of the regional dimensions of sustainable development by exploring the interaction between ecosystem services and Regional Policy. Two complementary aspects are investigated: a) whether or not Regional Policy could positively enable the provision of goods and services by ecosystems to European citizens and b) whether or not, and how, socio-economic aspects of specific relevance to Cohesion Policy (e.g. economic growth, citizen well-being, etc. could benefit from ecosystem services.
The analysis is based on an integrated modelling approach developed at the JRC using the Land-Use based Integrated Sustainability Assessment modelling platform (LUISA). In this system, Regional Policy becomes an integral part of scenario configurations and the output is a set of indicators of the status and performance of ecosystem services as a result of these policy-driven scenarios.
Land-Use based Integrated Sustainability Assessment modelling platform
Consumption Patterns and Sustainability
Consumption patterns contribute to environmental change, natural resource depletion and socio-economic outcomes. The impacts of consumption in the EU are felt globally, as the EU is dependent on imports of energy and natural resources and also exports wastes into the global commons (Sustainable Consumption and Production and Sustainable Industrial Policy Action Plan, 2008). Sustainable consumption is the objective of living well whilst respecting environmental, social, and economic constraints.
The JRC develops methods and data to support the evaluation of the relationships between consumption patterns and sustainability. This includes life-cycle-based Basket-of-Products Indicators that reflect the resources used and the associated environmental impacts of the the entire life cycle of goods and services that go into the final consumption of an average EU citizen. Ongoing developments include macro- and micro indicators and assessments of the social dimensions of EU and Member State trade at sector and consumer level. This will allow for benchmarking, tracking and proactively managing the social sustainability of consumption in parallel to life-cycle-based environmental and economic (i.e. life cycle costing) assessments.
The role of social and peer influence in changing behaviour and encouraging more sustainable consumption practices is also an area of increasing research interest. The JRC is studying the spatial and temporal diffusion of consumer uptake of new vehicle technologies to help determine whether social or peer influence can be inferred from uptake patterns. The approach developed is applicable to a range of products, services and consumer behaviours.
Economic Modelling, Scenarios and Impact Assessments
Human activities are impacting the world in ways which both inequitably distribute benefits and costs, and compromise the ability of future generations to meet their legitimate needs. Policy makers need to know how current policies are likely to affect the economic dimensions of sustainability and how to arrive at long-term policy strategies for economic sustainability that respect environmental constraints. The JRC develops and demonstrates new approaches for economic assessments and impact analyses through a combination of integrated methodologies and data. These aim to build and assess scenarios and policy options for Europe’s future based on a sustainability perspective towards 2050 and beyond.
The JRC uses input-output economic analyses to model the regional, national and international impacts of different policies on variables such as gross domestic product, employment, consumption and productivity, as well as on the environment. Dedicated software tools are developed and complemented with an environmental database. In parallel, the JRC explores the link between life cycle modelling approaches, environmental indicators and macro-economic modelling in order to facilitate the development of scenarios that cover a broad range of environmental and socio-economic concerns and thus allow for comprehensive and integrated sustainability assessments of alternative policy strategies and options.
Life Cycle Assessment
Integrated Assessments for a Sustainable Bio-economy
The bioeconomy encompasses the production of renewable biological resources and the conversion of these resources and waste streams into value-added products, such as food, feed, bio-based products and bioenergy. This covers diverse sectors, from agriculture, forestry, fisheries, food, pulp and paper production, and plastics to parts of the chemical, biotechnological and energy sectors. Managing the sustainable development of the bioeconomy requires comprehensive sustainability assessment frameworks and analyses to evaluate the value chains and products across their entire life cycle. To this end, the JRC is developing a set of economic, environmental and social indicators that are able to capture the multiple environmental, social and economic impacts of processes within the bio-economy and their interaction with the broader economy, society and environment.
The research activities of the JRC include analytical and methodological contributions to the design of the Bio-economy Observatory. Since March 2013, the JRC, through the Project "Support to Policies - Set Up of a Bio-economy Observatory (BISO)", is responsible for establishing an observatory that will bring together and align data, information, indicators, and modelling and forward-looking tools to regularly assess the progress and impact of the bio-economy.
As part of the scientific consortium, JRC activities include the application of integrated sustainability assessment tools for evaluating the transition to a European knowledge-based bio-economy in a resource-constrained world, as well as contributing to the comprehensive environmental sustainability assessment of various bio-based chains, processes and products, with a particular emphasis on life-cycle methodologies and assessments.
Launch of the Bio-economy Observatory