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Sustainability Impact Assessment Methodology

The marine environment is vital for human wellbeing and world’s economy, as can also be seen from the multiple ecosystem services it provides. Seawater bodies contribute to global food security, provide energy and other valuable resources, are a playground for tourism and offer immense opportunities for economic growth, employment and development. As a consequence, some areas are under threat from the effects of overexploitation, pollution, and loss of biodiversity due to the pressure of a wide range of human activities. This is especially the case for Europe‘s coastal seas as their already intense exploitation is expected to further intensify, diversify and expand. Member states must come to a sustainable management of the marine environment, and the growing importance of science, technology and innovation in improving the sustainable economic development is recognized. Ensuring a more healthy and sustainable marine environment is not only a requirement for marine companies to continue to operate in the long-term, innovating and investing in new ocean solutions, it also provides a significant business opportunity. It becomes clear that we need to be able to balance the preservation of a healthy marine environment with increasing economic activities, if we want to manage the development of marine/maritime sectors in a responsible and sustainable way. It requires a thorough scientific understanding of marine ecosystems, their mechanisms and behaviour, the ecosystem services they can provide, and the potential adverse effects (drawbacks) human activities have on the local, regional and global environment .

To provide a holistic sustainability profile of marine human activities, it is necessary to develop a comprehensive and robust methodology. The SUMES sustainability impact assessment methodology is developed based on a particular case study, namely offshore wind energy in the Belgian Continental Shelf, and expanded and validated through a multi-use case (wind energy in combination with mussel farming). In the end, the methodology is generic and results can be reproduced for other cases.

To quantify both the local and global (social and environmental) impacts of a human activity and its associated value chain, the results of cause-and-effect pathways had to be merged at different geographical levels. Therefore, specifically tools such as life cycle assessment (LCA) and ecosystem services assessment (ESA) were integrated. In this way, both site-generic and site-specific impacts on local ecosystem services were taken into account, as well as other global environmental impacts (e.g. global warming, ecotoxicity) in the value chain of a human activity.


When a human activity takes place in the marine environment, their value chain always connects to land through processes such as transportation, electricity use, production and use of intermediate products, etc. This means that there are local effects in the marine environment where the main activity takes place, but also local effects in the terrestrial environment related to the value chain. While for the first type, in SUMES, local ESA studies are performed (cfr ecosystem services model), generating information on site-specific impacts, in this case, on marine ecosystem services. These local marine effects are also monetized.

However, no such specific data on terrestrial ecosystem service changes due to the value chain processes was available. Therefore, a classical life cycle impact assessment method (ReCiPe 2016, H) was adapted by developing new characterization factors and midpoint impact categories, That way, it was possible to  account for terrestrial provisioning, regulating and cultural ecosystem service changes due to land use, next to the more traditional impact categories such as global warming and eutrophication. These site-generic CFs are calculated based on the Ecosystem Services Valuation Database (ESVD) and expressed in monetary terms. This method is referred to as LCA+ES.

The sustainability impact assessment methodology of SUMES integrates the results of the local ESAs (marine human activity in this case) to the results of LCA+ES (linked to its value chain processes). Aggregation is performed using monetary techniques and the results are expressed  as handprint (benefits) and footprint (burdens), at three newly defined areas of protection, i.e., Natural Resources, Ecosystem Quality and Human Health and Well-being. More information on the benchmark is found in our deliverables.