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Life Cycle Assessment - LCA

A complete environmental assessment of products and services must take into account the combined environmental consequences throughout the entire lifetime, from cradle to grave. Life cycle assessment is a standardised method for this.

Product development and strategy

General environmental analysis of products and services using LCA is necessary in many cases:

  • product development with regards to the environment; that is, determine the most significant contributors to resource use (water, energy, land occupation, materials) and emissions to the environment
  • environmental declarations such as EPD type III or others.  More information on EPDs can be found at  EPD-Norge
  • calculation of carbon footprints or climate footprints for products and services, according to standards such as the British specification PAS2050
  • other documentation directed to clients or authorities such as requirements to use the best available technique (BAT).  More information on BAT requirements can be found at the European IPPC Bureau (EIPPCB)

What is LCA?

LCA was first developed in the 1960s under the name "cumulative energy use." As implied by the term "cumulative," this method took into account all of the various life cycle phases from cradle to grave:  material extraction, refining and/or production, use and disposal of the product.  Much of the earliest studies focused on packaging and energy technologies and energy chains.

The field of LCA has developed extensively in the past few years.  Today, there are several commercial databases that describe typical materials and processes, and many methods to describe different environmental consequences.  SimaPro is an example of a software tool that is used to compile, manage and interpret the data used in LCA.

A more detailed description of LCA and the LCA method is described in the PhD dissertation of Johan Pettersen.  Other descriptions of LCA may be found in several ISO standards in the ISO 14000 series, including NS-ISO 14040:2006 (fundamental principles) and NS-ISO 14025:2006 (compilation of environmental product declarations)

Later developments

Life cycle assessment is based on a description of material, energy and service exchange between actors in a product's supply chain.  Another approach is to use economic transactions as a basis, as in input-output analysis (IOA).  Recently, the practice of combining data from traditional process-oriented LCA with economic transaction data from IOA in a hybrid LCA analyses has become more common. Norwegian transactions data may be found in the public database published by Statistics Norway (SSB).  Important contributions to the field of hybrid LCA analysis have been made by the Programme of Industrial Ecology at NTNU.  

Systems perspective in LCA

LCA has grown from being a strict product-focused method to be a more system based tool for environmental analysis.  LCA incorporates the system perspective in two important ways:

  • life cycle perspective expands the analysis; instead of focusing on single processes, the entire value chain behind the processes are examined
  • the framework for environmental consequence assessment in LCA allows for the concurrent calculation of several environmental consequences, which reveals trade-offs between different types of environmental effects.

Both of these aspects are important principals that can be used in many different interchanges and reveal previously hidden relationships between production/consumption and environmental impacts.