Life Cycle Assessment

What is an LCA?

An LCA, or Life Cycle Assessment, is a standardized method for evaluating the environmental impacts of a product, process, or service throughout its entire life cycle – from raw material extraction, production, distribution, use, recycling to disposal. LCAs have been used for over 50 years and have become an important tool for sustainability assessment.

The methodology behind LCAs is established in international standards, including ISO 14040 and 14044, which outline the principles and frameworks for conducting LCAs. These standards guide the selection of methods, data handling, and reporting of results.

LCAs often follow the guidelines of the GHG Protocol (Greenhouse Gas Protocol), which is developed to measure and report greenhouse gas emissions. The protocol divides environmental impacts into three areas, called scope 1, scope 2, and scope 3:

 

 

 

Scope 1: Direct greenhouse gas emissions from sources owned or controlled by the assessed entity, such as combustion processes or transportation systems.

Scope 2: Indirect greenhouse gas emissions from external energy sources, such as electricity, steam, or heat purchased by the assessed entity.

Scope 3: All other indirect emissions that occur as a result of activities outside the assessed entity’s direct control, such as distribution, product use, and disposal

LCA is an important tool for informing decision-making and improving environmental sustainability in industries and businesses by identifying areas with the greatest environmental impacts and opportunities for reduction.

Why is third-party verification important?

Think of an LCA as akin to an accounting statement. The balance in the accounting is confirmed by the auditor; the same goes for the LCA. Verification also ensures that the appropriate deductions are applied.

What types of LCAs exist?

Many consider it as an independent evaluation focusing narrowly on an isolated and specific subject, making it difficult to transfer to the broader business and other sustainability initiatives. However, LCA can do much more for companies than just answer isolated questions. In fact, there is a branch of LCA that looks at the company as a whole.

Today’s businesses often produce a wide range of products. For example, consumer goods companies have many different brands across borders and product categories. Even companies with few brands often have a wide range of products. For such companies, a standalone product LCA will only cover a small part of the company’s activities. This is where Organizational Life Cycle Assessment (OLCA) comes into play. This method, described in ISO/TS 14072, is designed to assess all goods and services within an organization.

Although it may seem like a daunting task to evaluate all of the company’s products, the OLCA method is designed to make this process more manageable.

It’s evident that OLCA will provide many valuable insights to the sustainability team, especially when it comes to understanding Scope 3 emissions. But the value of this assessment extends far beyond the sustainability team alone.

Is a product with an LCA a ‘good’ product?

No, an LCA analysis serves as a method for gathering environmental information about products, projects, or companies. Both products with high and low environmental impacts can undergo an LCA. The analysis provides insight to assess products both individually and in relation to others.

It’s essential to include all materials, packaging, and any semi-finished products that are part of a product, as their environmental impact all becomes part of the LCA.

When the environmental performance of a product or organization is determined, the improvement process is initiated. This involves continuous evaluation of performance and thus ongoing data collection. Here, LCA can be advantageously combined with methods such as ISO 14067, which focuses on CO2 impacts while also establishing frameworks for ongoing monitoring. The same applies to ISO 14064, but at an organizational level.

 

 

Who needs LCAs and why?

The analysis is used for:

  • Identification
    Here, one looks at opportunities to improve environmental efforts, such as which raw materials or processing methods emit the most CO2.
  • Basis for decision-making
    To optimize for one parameter often means that it happens at the expense of something else. For example, it doesn’t help much to reduce chemical usage if water consumption simultaneously increases significantly.
  • Indicators
    The selection of suitable indicators for environmental impacts is an interplay between understanding the impacts and what is practically feasible. It should add up to one higher unit.
  • Marketing
    Reporting according to recognized standards and third-party verification are powerful tools when you want to showcase your message or efforts – especially if you outperform your competitors.
  • LCA tools
    Based on the determined environmental impacts, calculation tools can be developed so that the impacts can be categorized, for example, at the order level or used to measure SDG efforts.

 

  • Purpose & Scope
    The product’s function needs to be defined along with the goals for the analysis and its scope. Should the analysis extend from cradle-to-grave or cradle-to-gate, and which common processes and support activities should be included?
  • Life cycle mapping
    The quantity of materials, energy, waste, and other elements involved in the analysis need to be collected. This part is usually manageable for companies themselves when they know what information is needed.
  • Assessment of environmental impacts
    The assessment differs from other methods such as environmental impact assessment and risk assessment. Here, the central aspect is a functional unit, which indicates the function fulfilled by a product or service, and is established during the 1st step (Purpose & Scope). Mandatory sub-steps include selecting impact categories, category indicators, and characterization models. An example of a well-known characterization model is the assessment of CO2 impacts over a 100-year period.
  • Life cycle interpretation
    This phase identifies the significant aspects and impacts from the preceding LCA phases. The evaluation covers completeness check (is all relevant information included?), sensitivity check (how sensitive are calculations to assumptions made?), and consistency check to ensure alignment between assumptions, methods, and data.
  • Verification
    If the results of the LCA are to be communicated to a third party, regardless of the form of communication, a third-party verification must be prepared. The method exists to ensure impartiality and correctness.

Who publishes LCAs?

It is not necessary to publish it in a database of a program operator, as required for an EPD. The owner of the LCA decides how the messages should be presented.

How much does it cost to get an LCA done?

The price is influenced by several factors. The time consumption depends on factors such as the complexity of the product, the scope of the organization, the manufacturing process, the type of LCA, and other factors.

Costs can range from approximately 100,000 DKK and up to several hundred thousand kroner.