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Transportation Research Part D 10 (2005) 395–403

The ecological footprints of fuels

Erling Holden *, Karl Georg Høyer
Western Norway Research Institute, P.O. Box 163, 6851 Sogndal, Norway


This article discusses the use of alternative fuels in the development of the environmentally friendly car
and the promotion of sustainable mobility. Based on well-to-wheel analyses and ecological footprint assess-
ments, this article confirms that the environmentally friendly car truly exists. There is substantial potential
for reducing the ecological footprint within a decade by using both new and conventional technologies and
alternative fuels. In the best-case scenario, a 75% reduction of the ecological footprint would be possible.
However, promoting sustainable mobility requires more than just a strategy to develop the environmentally
friendly car—it also requires a substitution strategy to encourage new means of transportation and a reduc-
tion strategy to reduce the growth of transport. Therefore, only a combination of these three strategies is
compatible with long-term sustainability requirements.
 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Alternative fuels; Energy chains; Ecological footprint; Environmentally friendly cars; Sustainable mobility

1. Introduction

In adopting the White Paper European Transport Policy for 2010: Time to Decide, the European
Commission presents its objectives for the next 10 years (European Commission, 2001). The
White PaperÕs main message is that change is required, and that the EUÕs transport policy is de-
signed to make this change happen. To change the transport policy and thus to realise the ultimate

Corresponding author. Tel.: +47 5767 6164; fax: +47 5767 6190.
E-mail address: (E. Holden).

1361-9209/$ - see front matter  2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
396 E. Holden, K.G. Høyer / Transportation Research Part D 10 (2005) 395–403

objective of the EUÕs common transport policy, sustainable mobility constitutes the new
imperative. Among a variety of measures, the White Paper focuses on the increased use of clean
and alternative fuels as a means of promoting sustainable mobility. This article discusses the rela-
tionship between sustainable mobility and alternative fuels.
Three very different strategies towards sustainable mobility can be found in the literature (Hol-
den, 2001): the efficiency strategy, the substitution strategy and the reduction strategy. Efficiency
is based on the idea that it is possible to solve the environmental problems caused by transport by
developing new and more efficient technologies. There are a number of different approaches and
methods that apply to this strategy, e.g. methods for calculating resource efficiency or intensity;
material intensity per service (MIPS); and factor 4, 10 and 20. The substitution strategy takes a
different approach, i.e. that we need to change our means of transport. Sustainable mobility im-
plies looking for transportation systems that leads to less environmental damage than the prevail-
ing mobility pattern. In practical terms this means transferring a large portion of todayÕs car and
plane journeys to buses, trains and trams.
Neither of the two first strategies seriously questions the level of mobility. It is merely a matter
of minimising energy use and unwanted pollution. This leads us to the reduction strategy. Its sup-
porters claim that neither efficiency nor substitution provides the reduction in energy use or emis-
sions that is essential for achieving sustainable mobility goals. On the contrary, there is a need for
individuals to travel less.
Implementing alternative fuels policies, which is a part of the efficiency strategy, has been high
on the political agenda in most industrialised countries for the past three decades. During recent
years an increased focus has been placed on hydrogen fuel cells. One of the main characteristics of
these cells is clean engine combustion, resulting in less local air pollution; hydrogen also offers the
possibility of reducing greenhouse gases.
The use of alternative fuels, however, covers a wide spectre of environmental impacts, including
the use of energy, material, and land resources. An overall assessment of any alternative fuel,
including hydrogen, thus, needs to be subjected to a holistic analysis with a broad spectre of envi-
ronmental impacts also included. Ecological footprinting is an analytic assessment tool that can
perform these types broad analyses. This method relates any consumption—energy, material or
land use—in the life cycle of a fuel to a corresponding area generating the ecological footprint
of the complete energy chain.1
The aim here is to impart knowledge about preferred fuels in terms of their ecological foot-
prints; essentially which fuel has the smallest ecological footprint?
The analyses include 16 energy chains for 2010 (Holden, 2003). The energy chains include the
conventional petrol and diesel chains, a variety of hybrid vehicles, a number of hydrogen chains
from non-renewable and renewable energy sources, plus energy chains based on biological fuels.
Two energy chains that reflect the situation today are also included, thus producing the 18 energy
chains shown in Table 1.

An energy chain is a specific chain that physically connects the different processes from the feedstock site to the
vehicle. It is common to operate with six sub-processes in an energy chain: (i) feedstock production, (ii) feedstock
transport, (iii) fuel production, (iv) distribution and reforming of the fuel, (v) refuelling and finally (vi) end use.
E. Holden, K.G. Høyer / Transportation Research Part D 10 (2005) 395–403 397

Table 1
Energy chains included
No. Feedstock Fuela Power trainb Year Abbreviation
(1) Raw oil Petrol Conventional 2000 PETROL-CONV
(2) Raw oil Diesel Conventional 2000 DIESEL-CONV
(3) Raw oil Petrol Conventional 2010 PETROL-CONV
(4) Raw oil Petrol Hybrid 2010 PETROL-HYB
(5) Raw oil Diesel Conventional 2010 DIESEL-CONV
(6) Raw oil Diesel Hybrid 2010 DIESEL-HYB
(7) Natural gas CNG Conventional 2010 NG-CNG-CONV
(8) Natural gas CNG Hybrid 2010 NG-CNG-HYB
(9) Natural gas LNG Conventional 2010 NG-LNG-CONV
(10) Natural gas LNG Hybrid 2010 NG-LNG-HYB
(11) Natural gas GH2 Fuel cell 2010 NG-GH2-FC
(12) Natural gas LH2 Fuel cell 2010 NG-LH2-FC
(13) Hydropower El Battery 2010 HP-EL-BATT
(14) Hydropower GH2 Fuel cell 2010 HP-GH2-FC
(15) Biomass (wood) Methanol OBR + Fuel cell 2010 BIO-MET-FCOBR
(16) Biomass (wood) Methanol Conventional 2010 BIO-MET-CONV
(17) Biomass (wood) Ethanol OBR + Fuel cell 2010 BIO-ET-FCOBR
(18) Biomass (wood) Ethanol Conventional 2010 BIO-ET-CONV
CNG = compressed (gaseous) natural gas; LNG = liquefied natural gas; GH2 = compressed gaseous hydrogen;
LH2 = liquefied hydrogen; El = electricity.
The power train consists of three separate parts: the energy converter (from chemical/electrical energy to mechanical
energy, e.g. an internal combustion engine or a fuel cell), energy transmission (e.g. a mechanical or electrical drive train)
and possible energy store (e.g. a battery). Conventional = conventional combustion engine; Hybrid = conventional
combustion engine + electric motor (in parallel); OBR = on-board reformer. All Fuel cells are hybrid (fuel cell + electric

A medium-sized passenger car, with a driving pattern that combines city and motorway driving,
is used as a reference. Four main sources of data are used, collected since 2000.2

2. Ecological footprints

The concept of ecological footprinting was first developed by Rees and Wackernagel in the
early 1990s as an elaboration of the Ôcarrying capacityÕ concept (Wackernagel and Rees, 1996).
The underlying conceptual idea is that we need land areas to survive and that it is possible to cal-
culate this area. Everything that we consume, or deposit, needs an area to be assimilated in. As
such, ecological footprinting is a simple accounting tool that combines human impacts (or use

A comprehensive study performed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Weiss et al., 2000); two large studies
performed by General Motors Corporation; one North American (reflecting American conditions) and one European
(aimed at the European market) (General Motors, 2001a; General Motors, 2001b; General Motors, 2002); a study
performed by Ecotraffic in Sweden (Ecotraffic, 2001); and a computer model developed by Western Norway Research
Institute and National Institute of Technology, Norway (WNRI/NIT, 2002).
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of ecological services) as an index in a way that is consistent with thermodynamic and ecological
principles (Chambers et al., 2000).
There are several factors that make ecological footprint analysis a valuable tool for sustainabil-
ity analyses:

• It is based on the life cycle principle, which is a prerequisite for assessing environmentally sus-
tainable development.
• The method focuses on consumption. One of the main characteristics of the environmental
problems relates to unsustainable consumption patterns in the richer part of the world; con-
sumption patterns and volumes being a central part of the sustainable development debate.
The method can be used for consumption at any level, from an individual person up to a coun-
try or the global population.
• It comprises of a synthesis of a number of consumption categories, as well as environmental
consequences, in a single analysis, making it possible to carry out overall comparisons not just
limited to specific components or aspects.
• The technique incorporates the idea of equity and global justice.
• The method is an excellent tool for illustrating the challenges of sustainable development, for
professionals and non-professionals.

The method is not, however, without limitations. First, there are a number of consumption and
emission aspects that are not included in the analyses. Ecological footprinting includes only con-
sumption and emissions that require land areas (Lewan, 2000). Important environmental issues
relating to emissions of heavy metals, persistent organic and non-organic materials, radioactive
substances etc. are therefore not included. Secondly, criticisms have been raised against the land
area methodology, especially the CO2 land area (Jørgensen et al., 2002). Finally, and probably the
most problematic aspect, is the idea of summarising many different types of land categories into a
single number. One approach is to use Ôland productivityÕ, which makes it possible to determine
the productivity of different land types by referring to the reported yields of various plant and ani-
mal produce but this is rather a limited perspective and also really says nothing about quality of
Ecological footprints can be used in several ways, e.g. for calculating the ecological footprint of
a nation (or the world) and comparing this with the available bio-capacity.3 This involves com-
paring the ecological footprint from the consumption of natural resources with the earthÕs biolog-
ical capacity to regenerate them.4 But ecological footprints can also be used in less sophisticated
ways, e.g. as a simple analytical device for comparing the environmental consequences of a

Bio-capacity or biological capacity refers to the annual biological production capacity of a biologically productive
space e.g. inside a country. It can also be expressed as Ôglobal hectaresÕ.
According to The Living Planet Report 2002 (World Wide Fund for Nature, 2002), the global ecological footprint
covered 13.7 billion hectares in 1999, or 2.3 global hectares per person. This demand on nature can be compared with
the earthÕs productive capacity. Approximately 11.4 billion hectares, slightly less than a quarter of the earthÕs surface,
are biologically productive, harbouring the bulk of the planetÕs biomass production. The remainder, including deserts,
ice caps, and deep oceans, support comparatively little bioproductivity. The report, however, argues that the productive
25% of the biosphere corresponded to an average 1.9 global hectares per person in 1999. Human consumption,
therefore, of natural resources overshot the earthÕs biological capacity by around 20%.
E. Holden, K.G. Høyer / Transportation Research Part D 10 (2005) 395–403 399

number of fuels (energy chains). By using the information from the WTW study (Holden, 2003) it
is possible to consider the implications of alternative fuel policies.

3. Ecological footprints of fuels

The ecological footprints of fuels consists of three main components; the area needed for energy
production; the area needed to sequester emissions of greenhouse gases; and the area needed for
the safe deposit of nitrogen and sulphur. These components are calculated by multiplying the con-
sumption (or emission) by a conversion factor using data from Holden (2003).
The land areas needed for energy production are taken from Høyer and Heiberg (1993). These
data reflect Norwegian conditions, but are in accordance with other sources (Chambers et al.,
2000; Jørgensen et al., 2002). The area required for hydropower is calculated as 0.222 m2/MJ. This
includes power plant reservoirs as well as transmission lines. The area needed to produce one MJ
of wood is set at 0.518 m2/MJ. To calculate the ecological footprint (per kilometre driven), these
figures are multiplied by the WTW energy use for each energy chain. Thus, the result represents
the area occupied by the energy production required to drive a vehicle one kilometre with the spe-
cific feedstock and fuel. The areas needed to extract oil and natural gas are too small to be
Four different greenhouse gases are included: CO2, CH4, N2O and NOX,5 which together form
CO2-equivalent emissions, using the Global Warming Potential recommended by the IPCC
(International Panel on Climate Change, 2001).6 There are various methods of calculating the
area that corresponds to the emission of greenhouse gases (Wackernagel and Rees, 1996), but
all produce approximately the same result. The CO2 assimilation method is adopted to prevent
CO2 gases from accumulating in the atmosphere, a forest area needs setting aside for sequestering
the gas. Balancing the emissions and the land area needed for this implies that the increased
concentration of greenhouse gases could end. According to the Norwegian Pollution
Control Authority the assimilation rate of CO2 in forests is 1.58 ton CO2 per hectare; a figure
used here.
Of the methods available for calculating footprints for the land areas required for the safe de-
posit of sulphur and nitrogen, critical loads (for acidity) are used to calculate the footprints of
sulphur and nitrogen emission from the energy chains. The critical load of sulphur and nitrogen
acidity for an ecosystem can be defined as: ‘‘The highest deposition of acidifying compounds that
will cause chemical changes leading to long-term harmful effects on ecosystems and function’’
(Posch et al., 2001).7

CO2, CH4 and N2O are among a large number of gases that have a direct global warming potential (GWP).
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2001); the direct GWPs are believed to be reasonably
accurately (±35%) known. However, there is also gases that have indirect effects, e.g. NOX. These gases have a GWP
through their effect on the production of O3.
The Global Warming Potential (GWP) for the gases are as follow: CO2 = 1, CH4 = 23, N2O = 296 and NOX = 5.
The GWP refers to a timespan of 100 years.
In the Nordic region the critical load for sulphur, expressed as SO2 emission, is 3 kg sulphur per hectare per year.
The corresponding figure for nitrogen, expressed as NOX, is 1.5 kg nitrogen per hectare per year.
400 E. Holden, K.G. Høyer / Transportation Research Part D 10 (2005) 395–403

4. Results

While there is almost a consensus regarding the performance of combustion engines, hybrids
and electric vehicles, this is not so for fuel cells. There are wide-ranging assumptions regarding
energy efficiency (and consequently the energy use and footprint size) for fuel cells when operating
under real driving conditions. The data vary from a low estimate of just over 23% (Ecotraffic,
2001) up to a high estimate of over 40% (General Motors, 2002). The differences reflect uncer-
tainty regarding the performance of a fuel cell in a vehicle driven under real and transient condi-
tions. In line with this, high and low estimates for the fuel cell option are employed; 11a is based
on the low-efficiency fuel cell, while 11b includes a high-efficiency fuel cell. We have used low en-
ergy efficiency for all other energy chains that include a cell implying that only energy chain 11b
mirrors the most positive assessment of the fuel cell.
Fig. 1 shows results from the footprint calculations. The greenhouse gas component is sepa-
rated into CO2 emissions and non-CO2 emissions because of due the dominance of emission.

4.1. Conventional energy chains: 2000–2010

Using conventional technology, the potential for reducing the ecological footprint by 2010 is
substantial; 22% reduction can be achieved for petrol cars and more than 35% for diesel-fuelled
cars. The difference in footprint between petrol and diesel—which was almost zero in 2000—is ex-
pected to increase by 2010. This is the result of tight NOX emission standards for diesel engines that
brings them to the same level as petrol engines. The higher energy efficiency of diesel engines, how-
ever, compared to petrol engines will remain into the next decade. Hybrid versions of petrol and
diesel engines will further reduce the footprints. Compared to most commonly used car in Norway
today, the hybrid petrol car decreases the footprint by a third and the hybrid diesel halves it.

2000 2010

















































































CO2 "Non-CO2" (CO2eqv) NOX (critical load N) SO2 (critical load S) Energy production

Fig. 1. The data refers to a private car in mixed city and motorway driving conditions. All numbers are in m2/km.
E. Holden, K.G. Høyer / Transportation Research Part D 10 (2005) 395–403 401

Table 2
The energy chains are sorted into groups based on their reduction potential compared to the reference chain
Energy chain Ecological footprint compared to the
reference energy chain (%)a
The hydropower-based energy chains (nos. 13 and 14) 75% reduction
The natural-gas-based energy chains (nos. 7–12) 45–75% reduction
The raw-oil-based energy chains (nos. 4–6) 15–30% reduction
The biomass (wood)-based energy chains (nos. 15–18) 0–50% increase
The reference energy chain refers to energy chain no. 3 (raw oil–petrol–conventional power train in 2010).

4.2. Conventional and alternative energy chains: 2010

Compared to the reference chain (i.e. conventional raw-oil-based petrol used in an internal
combustion engine; energy chain no. 3) the energy chains included in the analysis are naturally
clustered into four groups. There are differences in the size of the ecological footprints within each
group but differences between the groups seem more important (Table 2).

4.2.1. The hydropower-based energy chains

The energy chain with the lowest footprint is based on hydropower. Compared to the reference
chain, a huge footprint reduction (up to 75%) seems possible. This is because there is hardly any
emission involved in the many processes that constitutes the energy chain, and the land needed for
energy production is relatively small compared to, for example, biomass production.

4.2.2. The natural-gas-based energy chains

The natural-gas-based energy chains have considerable potential for reducing the ecological
footprint, although not to the same extent as hydropower. The most promising alternative is using
a high-efficiency fuel cell running on gaseous hydrogen produced from natural gas. This energy
chain could also reduce the ecological footprint by 75%. Even the poorest natural-gas-based en-
ergy chain—liquid hydrogen in combination with a low-efficiency fuel cell—implies a reduction of
almost 45%. Natural gas used in conventional engines also has considerable large potential; the
ecological footprint is effectively divided into half. A hybrid engine will contribute to an extra
10% reduction. The low NOX and SO2 emissions are the main reason for the small footprint from
the natural-gas-based chains.

4.2.3. The raw-oil-based energy chains

There is substantial potential for reducing the ecological footprints without searching for a new
fuel. The raw-oil-based hybrid diesel has an ecological footprint that is over 30% smaller than that
of the reference chain, while the hybrid petrol engine cuts the footprint size by more than 15%.

4.2.4. The biomass-based energy chains

The looser in this analysis is the biomass-based energy chains. Ethanol and methanol produced
from woody biomass lead to comparable or even increased ecological footprints as compared to
the base chain. An increase of up to 50% could result if ethanol is used in conventional
402 E. Holden, K.G. Høyer / Transportation Research Part D 10 (2005) 395–403

combustion engines. Methanol (in combination with a fuel cell) implies a footprint about the same
size as the reference chain. There are two reasons for these disappointing results. It takes a lot of
energy to produce this fuel from the feedstock. While it takes around 10% of the energy content in
raw oil to produce petrol, it takes two energy units of biomass feedstock to produce one unit of
ethanol or methanol. Secondly, biomass feedstock has a very low energy density per area.

5. Alternative fuels, ecological footprints and sustainable mobility

The discourse on sustainable development shows a direct link between sustainability and
renewable energies, as emphasised in the report by the UN World Commission on Environment
and Development (1987). Here it is maintained that the long-term goal is a global and extensive
transition to renewable energy resources. Sustainable mobility should similarly be based on trans-
port technologies with renewable fuel systems.
Hydropower has a very low ecological footprint, but is not a global resource with sufficient vol-
umes to support the ever increasing transport systems. Natural gas also has a low ecological foot-
print but does not have these resource volume limitations, at least not for several decades. But it is
not a renewable energy resource, and it does not fulfil the long-term requirements of a sustainable
energy system. Biomass is globally available in large volumes and is a renewable resource, but
would lead to unacceptable increases in ecological footprints if used extensively. Therefore, it
seems that only a combination of more efficient use of resources, substitution to less environmen-
tally harmful fuels, and reduced transportation will meet long-term sustainability objectives.


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