Quantifying environmental impacts as part of sustainable strategies and decision-making

By Niels Jahn Christiansen in News feed, SustainX

In a successful sustainable solution, three dimensions interact; Environment, Society and Economy. The environment supplies resources through the natural capital and is affected by emissions which translates into environmental impacts in ecosystems. The result is the prosperity of human societies and economic development. In a more specific industrial view, the value creation in products and functions causes impacts on the environment throughout the whole life cycle. To mitigate these impacts, companies can apply Life Cycle Thinking (LCT) and, with this aim, quantify their environmental impacts through Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).

As a response to our shrinking capacity to combat climate and ecological crises’ from our increasing pressure on planetary boundaries, the European Commission has proposed making sustainable products the norm’ (EC, March 2022). This will follow the current Ecodesign directive and apply to the broadest possible range of products. 

It will be set in product-specific legislation and will include rules to make products more:

  • durable, 
  • reliable, 
  • reuseable, 
  • upgradable, 
  • reparable, 
  • Easier to maintain and refurbish, 
  • Energy and resource-efficient, 
  • And promote practices for the circular economy

Further, the proposal will also enable information requirements on environmental impacts from product creation, leading the way for Digital Product Passports. Today, such information can be provided by the voluntary Environmental Product Declaration (EPD), constructed by performing an LCA. 

While we wait for the framework of the Sustainable Products Initiative and the new Ecodesign and Energy labeling Working plan for 2022-2024 to be finalized, we invite you to familiarize yourself with the product-system Life Cycle Thinking in this article. 

LIFE CYCLE THINKING

Since the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) released a manual in 1997, “Ecodesign: A Promising Approach to Sustainable Production and Consumption,” and later “Design for Sustainability a Step-by-step approach” in 2009, the industry has adapted sustainable product development practices and quantitative analyses at different levels. The Ecodesign Directive 2009/125/EC set requirements for energy-related products. Eco-design is a semi-quantitative assessment in environmental management that utilizes “the integration of environmental aspects into product design and development” (ISO/TR 14062, 2002). 

Figure 1 – Examples of areas for qualitative and quantitative Eco-design approaches (click to see the picture)

STRATEGIZING YOUR SUSTAINABILITY EFFORTS

To support strategic decisions, quantitative data can provide insights. An LCA can be a valuable tool in developing product portfolios and business areas and in detailed investigations of environmental impacts by comparing alternatives or identifying weak points (hot spots) in the production chain. Performing a Product Life Cycle Check (LCC) is a simplified screening approach to LCA and analyzes the background and purpose of the study by identifying the service (the functional unit) and determining the product system. This is done by collecting data and preliminary environmental assessment by the MECO principle (Materials, Energy, Chemicals, Other). The interpretation of such can answer questions like:

  • Where do the most significant resource consumption and environmental impacts seem to be in the product life cycle? 
  • Where are the most important data shortcomings and uncertainties?
  • Which possible changes could be environmentally attractive?
  • What should be done before conclusions are drawn and actions based on the environmental assessment are taken? 

Therefore, the LCC can guide the planning and optimize the further work of assessing environmental impacts from product systems. It is a shortcut to an actual LCA. It can be utilized as screening before undertaking a complete study, saving time and resources. Sometimes an LCC can be sufficient in answering critical questions about resource use and allow to compare substitutes. Aside from the industrial application, Life Cycle Thinking and Life Cycle Assessment are the scientific approaches behind current environmental policies and business decisions related to Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP). 

DECISION MAKING WITH LIFE CYCLE ASSESSMENT

LCA is a type of Quantitative Sustainability Assessment (QSA) that analyses environmental properties in product systems. As a tool, the undertaking can create a fundamental understanding of life cycle thinking in analyzing and managing technological systems by analyzing assessment parameters that describe the impacts on the environment and resource capital. LCA is used for comparisons, and this is done through the investigation of Eco-efficiency, which can be defined as an “aspect of sustainability relating the environmental performances of a product system to its product system value” (ISO 14045). Therefore, eco-efficiency is the service provided related to the environmental impacts caused. The aim is to create as much value or functionality with the least environmental impact, resulting in resource-efficient products. Improved efficiency can result in “rebound effects” by creating an opportunity or reason to use a product or service more, which is thereby not reducing the total environmental impacts as intended.

Further, focusing on eco-efficiency alone is not enough to create sustainable production and consumption strategies. In contrast to efficiency, we find effectiveness. Eco-effectiveness can be seen as doing the right thing for the environment or doing good rather than just doing less bad. This is a critical aspect to understand when considering LCA utilization. In comparing two products, one might be more environmentally sustainable, relative to eco-efficiency, but not in an absolute sustainability condition where the three dimensions introduced in the beginning must be fulfilled. 

PERFORMING A LIFE CYCLE ASSESSMENT

An LCA study is an iterative process and starts by defining the goal and scope definition. The goal definition guides all the detailed aspects of the scope definition, which sets the frame for the Life Cycle Inventory (LCI) work and Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA) work.

Figure 2 – Framework for Life Cycle Assessment (ISO 14040:2006; modified)

The service that the product system provides must be defined precisely so that alternatives provide equal services. This is done in the functional unit by defining obligatory and positioning properties. (Obligatory means it is decisive for the users’ acceptance of a product being that of the category and fulfilling non-deviating requirements. Positioning properties make the product attractive or favorable to the user). The product system is defined as all the processes involved in the product’s life cycle and constitutes four main stages; 

  • Resources and materials, 
  • manufacture, 
  • use, 
  • disposal. 

More stages can be added if needed. Flowsheets describing inputs and outputs between processes shall be made. Sometimes the product systems interact with other product systems, and a fair division between utilizations must be made. This is known as crediting and helps assure similar functionality or equivalency of alternatives. To apply quantitative parameters, you have to do an inventory analysis to perform an impact assessment. When you collect the data, you need to establish the source of environmental impacts by identifying sources of emission and resource use. 

Early in the scope definition, you must choose which modeling principle and approach you will use for the life cycle inventory. Two principles can apply in the modeling of the system: attributional or consequential modeling. Likewise, there are two approaches: allocation or system expansion/substitution.

This has implications for many later choices, including which inventory data are to be collected or obtained. Life Cycle Impact Assessment aggregates the inventory data in support of interpretation. The selection of impact categories must be comprehensive to ensure that they cover all relevant environmental issues related to the analyzed product system. These impact categories range from 

global; Greenhouse effect and climate change, Degradation of stratospheric ozone, Depletion of non-renewable resources 

to

regional; Acidification, Enrichment with nutrients, Toxicity to ecosystems and humans, Photochemical air pollution 

to

local; Clearing of land, loss of soil and habitat, and Depletion of water resources. 

The environmental impacts can be calculated for each exchange and expressed for the whole life cycle of the product. However, to do so, a practitioner must be educated in LCA approaches and modeling in software with built-in process databases. 

PURPOSES OF LIFE CYCLE ASSESSMENT STUDIES

By integrating sustainability requirements in the development of technology and solutions, quantifying the environmental impacts can serve multiple purposes. In short, the analysis is used to avoid problem shifting and consider the whole range of environmental impacts in the entire life cycle. The tool can identify hot spots in the production chain where improvements can be made and benchmark solutions. The results can be related to absolute boundaries and carrying capacities of ecosystems or the sustainable annual impact from an average person. Studies can serve as data proof for eco-labeling and Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). Below, some of the LCA applications according to the EU ILCD are shown. Further Life Cycle Costing and Social Life Cycle Assessments should be utilized to ensure sustainable products and services.

Figure 3 – Examples of application areas and purposes according to the International Reference Life Cycle Data System (ILCD) (click to see the picture)

DO YOU NEED HELP IN DEVELOPING YOUR SUSTAINABILITY STRATEGY?

It can sometimes seem a little daunting to get started. So remember that SustainX is here to help! At SustainX, our mission is to ensure all Danish SMEs work with sustainability. Together with you, we want to succeed with the national goal of a 70% reduction in CO2 emissions. Increase your internal sustainability qualifications with SustainX Academy or partner up with SustainX and get your very own SustainX Sustainability Manager to help your organization through A-Z on your green transition. Follow the links below to read more.