Glass ball reflecting light from sun and river in green landscape

Life Cycle Assessments for the Climate – A tool for the circular economy

Life Cycle Assessments for the Climate – A tool for the future of the circular economy

Life cycle assessments, commonly known as LCAs, go beyond classical approaches to assessing environmental consequences of products, industries, and company actions. LCAs provide companies a more in depth understanding of the impacts they have on the environment by accounting for more stages than just the use stage.

Taking the emissions released from the distribution stage, for instance, is also important to consider when accurately calculating your overall emissions. Think of a truck with heavy cargo on its way to a warehouse or factory – emissions are created during this necessary process of transporting a product or getting it to its final destination. This is the case with all the stages within a life cycle assessment.

The Circular Economy

 

A circular economy goes beyond the typical buy, sell, and dispose mentality. This closed loop thinking incorporates holistic and environmentally preferable solutions to a products’ life cycle, often by factoring in stages like reuse and recycling.

An LCA tool or a carbon footprint calculator is a good instrument which can be utilized to understand the most optimal ways for a product to best engage within the EU circular economy and become environmentally preferable products.

Cradle-to-Cradle & Cradle-to-Grave

Conducting an LCA on the granular level starts from the point of extracting the raw materials all the way up until the complete and eventual disposal of a product. This is commonly known as cradle-to-grave which is where the life cycle assessment gets its name. Cradle-to-grave refers to all of the stages the product experiences up until the point of which it is disposed of or no longer being used. However, incorporating additional stages such as recycling and refurbishment, adds a cradle-to-cradle concept which becomes necessary when engaging in a circular economy.

Other steps such as what occurs during resource processing, manufacturing, recycling, and disposal are also taken into account when calculating overall environmental impacts. Cradle-to-cradle provides a more holistic approach to life cycle analysis and incorporates circular thinking. With cradle-to-cradle, a products’ creation as well as its disposal and even actions beyond like recycling and repurposing as included. This is important because LCAs can aid in pinpointing hotspots where environmental impacts are greatest in a products life which, often as not, is not always the use stage.

Oftentimes the greatest environmental impact from a product can be found within the manufacturing or disposal stage where unfavorable methods are used and materials go to waste or where disposing of a product demands extensive steps to ensure safety to the public.

Two colleagues working on project

Carbon Footprint & Environmentally Preferable Products (EPP)

The carbon footprint is generally defined as the calculated output of Carbon dioxide and equivalents (CO2e) from any and all activities–anything from driving a car, to charging your phone, and even your new purchases.

Environmentally preferable products (EPP) or Sustainable Products (SP) take this carbon footprint into consideration and are generally defined as products and services that have a lesser or reduced effect on human health and the environment, when compared to competing products or services that serve the same purpose.

The carbon footprint of products or activities can be calculated using a carbon footprint calculator where the results represent the quantity of CO2e emissions released into the atmosphere, thereby making it easier to assess products or activities on an environmental level.

Examples of environmentally preferable products can include:

  1. Reduced packaging
  2. Ease of reuse, refurbishment, remanufacture, or recycling at end of life
  3. Reduction of emissions and air contaminants
  4. Improved energy and water efficiency
  5. Use of alternative sources of energy and fuels
  6. Reduced waste, and practices that support reuse and recycling
  7. Use of renewable resources
  8. Reduced exposure to toxins and hazardous substances

Greenwashing

Greenwashing refers to when companies and organizations mislead their consumers or audiences by making them believe that a product, service they provide, or the organization itself is environmentally friendly or sustainable, when it is not. Deceptive claims that refer to products as environmentally friendly when important factors essential in accurately calculating the carbon footprint of the product are neglected often constitute greenwashing throughout many industries.

So how do you avoid greenwashing?

Being transparent on your calculations and method is one of your most powerful tools in avoiding claims of greenwashing. This means sharing how you perform your calculations and sharing your results with your value chain and the public.

The Makeup of Life Cycle Assessments

According to ISO 14040 and ISO 14044 – the leading standards for LCAs – an LCA is performed in four main phases or steps:

  1. The first step in completing an LCA requires conducting an evaluation of what the goal and scope are, including a detailed definition of the product, its life cycle stages and modeling choices.
  2. The next step involves taking inventory and listing all inputs (e.g. materials, energy) and outputs (e.g. waste) in each of the life cycle stages of the product. A good source of the product inputs is the bill of materials, which will often include information such as what kinds of raw materials can be found within the product and specifications of the composition like the specific weight, or mass of a component. This ensures that all the components required for assessing the product can be individually assessed and the products overall environmental footprint can be thoroughly documented. If not readily available, the bill of materials can often be easily compiled by engaging upstream suppliers. 
  3. As the third step, an impact assessment is made to best understand where hotspots, or the points which demand more attention, are occuring.
  4. Finally, following this step an improvement assessment can be made which provides a detailed analysis of the findings following completion of the LCA and often recommendations as to further improve the product or components environmental impact.
 

All in all, LCAs are a powerful tool in that they can help empower decision makers to engage in different methods and facilitate strategies that allow them to incorporate granular environmental thinking into their products.

notepad with product life cycle and word eco. Recycling

Carbon Footprint Accounting? Here’s what you need to know

Carbon footprint accounting? Here's what you need to know

Life cycle thinking in carbon footprint accounting

Activity-based approach and spend-based approach are two common Greenhouse Gas (GHG) accounting (commonly known as carbon footprint accounting) methods. While both are compatible with life cycle thinking, they differ greatly in the origins of inventory data and emission factors. Distinct origins and characteristics of the data used in these two approaches lead to significant differences in the data collection process, resulting in GHG inventories with varying levels of details, specificity, representativeness, and accuracy, and accordingly the applicability of the accounting results to decision making for corporates, consumers, and regulators.

Inventory: technical-physical data vs. financial data

The activity-based approach necessitates engineering process data of the processes managed by the reporting company as well as its suppliers and service providers, e.g. Bill of Materials. The collected data are in physical units such as kilograms and kWh. They are principally process-specific primary data supplemented by secondary market average data. The data collection process usually takes time and effort, however, it yields detailed, representative, and consistent results.

Differently, the spend-based approach requires exclusively financial data or purchases, and values are expressed in monetary units. Data from suppliers or service providers is not needed, thus reducing the time and resources for the inventory data curation process. However, financial data are subject to price fluctuations caused by varying exchange rates, changing market conditions, as well as other temporal and geographical factors. For instance, the same product bought in different purchasing conditions may have distinct GHG footprints, while the factual GHG emissions should remain the same. These complicate the spend-based approach and add great uncertainties not only to the financial inventories but also the GHG accounting results.

In this video we discuss and explain the differences between Spend based and Activity based approaches

Application: credible and consistent accounting vs. screening

The accounting results developed based on the activity-based approach provide a good representation of the reporting company’s specific value chain activities. The accounting allows the reporting companies to conduct baseline setting and identify key contributors and accordingly develop emission reduction plans. Given the consistency and credibility of the primary data and high-resolution emission factors, the obtained accounting results can be used to track progress of the reporting companies towards reduction targets. 

The spend-based method can be a helpful tool for corporates to approximate organizational or product-level footprints during the initial screening phase of the climate combat journey. However, given the lack of specificity and consistency in the inventory data and low-resolution emission factors, GHG accounting based on the spend-based method is not recommended to be used for reporting or monitoring. 



References

GHGP. (2011). Corporate Value Chain (Scope 3) Standard | Greenhouse Gas Protocol. https://ghgprotocol.org/standards/scope-3-standard 

ISO. (2018). ISO 14064-1:2018 Greenhouse gases—Part 1: Specification with guidance at the organization level for quantification and reporting of greenhouse gas emissions and removals. ISO. https://www.iso.org/cms/render/live/en/sites/isoorg/contents/data/standard/06/64/66453.html