LCA provides the evidence base for circular economy
Life cycle assessment (LCA) has been the toolbox for sustainable products for decades, but it is fair to say that it hasn’t quite gained the level of popularity that could go with such a claim to fame. But maybe it doesn’t need to be popular.
Large brushstroke visions like cradle-to-cradle, bio-economy and circular economy should be the drivers of the necessary change, with LCA providing the evidence base making sure we choose optimal solutions and avoid unintended consequences. Without needing to know all the details, the broader sustainability community will benefit from understanding when and how LCA can be of use to them.
LCA is simply a framework to integrate environmental impacts over a full or partial value chain, ie, over several processes and entities, and across a range of impact categories. The framework is also applicable to social and economic aspects, and life cycle sustainability assessment covers all three simultaneously, but environmental LCA is the oldest and most common application. LCA is governed by international standards ISO 14040:2006 and ISO 14044:2006, with spin-off ‘single issue’ standards such as for carbon footprinting (ISO 14067:2018) and water footprinting (ISO 14046:2014).
En route to the circular economy (CE), LCA will make sure that circularity is accompanied by decreasing overall environmental impacts. Unfortunately, the two don’t always go hand in hand. Even when all energy will be derived from renewable sources — and this is still a while away — there will be a need to optimise energy efficiency and material use, for example, solar cells and batteries.
Very broadly speaking, there are two ways to use LCA. One is as a decision-making or design tool, for products or processes. By integrating a (full) range of supply chain processes and impact categories, LCA can help identify hotspots and trade-offs. For example, the use of recycled material may increase the weight of a product and thus increase transport requirements. LCA can balance the pros and cons and show whether there is net improvement.
The other way to use LCA is as an accounting tool. In this context, LCA generates values for standard metrics that can meaningfully be communicated business-to-business or business-to-consumer, such as carbon footprints (CFPs) or environmental product declarations (EPDs).
The Australian LCA Society (ALCAS) is a volunteer-run professional organisation promoting understanding and proper use of LCA as well as driving continuous professionalisation of this field. Our activities are centred around five main programs: Australian Life Cycle Inventory (AusLCI), EPD Australasia, professional certification of LCA practitioners, best practice guidance in impact assessment methodology and organisation of a biennial conference.
The freely available Australian Life Cycle Inventory (AusLCI) database (www.auslci.com.au) contains data on environmental inputs and emissions of a host of (intermediate) products. It helps you to understand the environmental impacts these products have, and enables you to calculate, for example, the carbon footprint of a cubic metre of 40 MPa concrete, or fossil fuel depletion associated with 1 kWh of electricity generated in NSW. AusLCI data are used in (NCOS) carbon neutral assessments, LCA tools for buildings and infrastructure, EPDs, etc.
EPDs are highly standardised and verified declarations of the environmental impacts associated with intermediate products. On the website epd-australasia.com you can find all the EPDs that are currently registered for the Australasian region. EPDs are used amongst others in green procurement and for credit points in Green Star ratings (www.gbca.org.au) and IS ratings (www.isca.org.au). An EPD can easily be used to create a Climate Declaration, or for a streamlined certification process as part of the Australian Government’s National Carbon Offset Standard (NCOS). ALCAS owns the EPD Australasia program together with our New Zealand counterparts LCANZ.
A certification program for LCA professionals (LCACP) is run together with the American Center for LCA (ACLCA). Certified professionals meet requirements regarding knowledge of and experience in performing LCA as well as being up to date on current developments. An ever-expanding list of certified practitioners can be found on the ALCAS website (www.alcas.asn.au).
A best-practice guide for life-cycle impact assessment in an Australian context was written by LCA experts to make the choice of metrics for environmental impacts easier. For climate change, we all know global warming potential in units of kg CO2-equivalent, but for other aspects such as air pollution or water scarcity, there is a bewildering number of methods available. The recommendations and associated impact factors are freely available on the ALCAS website and can be applied to single processes as well as life-cycle data.
For more information, visit www.alcas.asn.au.
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