SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
  September 2010
Volume 11 Issue 9

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Alessandra ZamagniHighlights from the Life Cycle Assessment and Sustainability Sessions at the 2010 SETAC Europe Annual Meeting

Alessandra Zamagni, LCA & Ecodesign Unit, National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development, Italy

In the framework of what will be remembered as the most successful SETAC Europe annual meeting, the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) community confirmed its presence. With a growing attendance of participants with respect the previous years, the LCA numbers are very significant: 44 platform presentations, 3 poster spotlight sessions, 1 poster corner with more than 70 posters.

Five dedicated sessions were organized: strengthening uncertainty analysis in LCA; life cycle sustainability analysis; life cycle management; new developments in life cycle impact assessment; and life cycle inventories. Last but not least, important side events contributed to the creation of a dynamic, fresh and thoughtful participation: the short course on the USEtox Model, the SETAC Sustainability Forum and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)-SETAC Life Cycle Initiative meetings. All the sessions had good participation from the audience in terms of comments and discussions, and all delivered important results both from the viewpoint of methodological improvements and applications in real case studies.

Strengthening Uncertainty Analysis in LCA

The topic of uncertainty analysis is a relevant issue not only in LCA but in any scientific discussion. Even if debated in a dedicated session, uncertainty affects all the LCA phases and is everywhere: in databases, models, parameters, assumptions. So far uncertainty has not been properly addressed by LCA researchers and practitioners do not always perform uncertainty analysis in their applications. Thus, there is an urgent need to make its evaluation a common practice. In this regard, the session provided important scientific contributions. Two viewpoints have been highlighted: the theoretical one, represented by the philosophy and theory of science, and the computational one, focused on approaches for error propagation. New techniques have been introduced and tested on case studies: Taylor series, fuzzy numbers and neural networks, just to cite some. Overall, the approaches discussed move the state of the practice a step ahead and confirm the fundamental role of uncertainty analysis in guaranteeing the robustness of LCA studies, and in contributing to an increased reliability and interpretation of the results.

Life Cycle Sustainability Analysis

Sustainability aspects are becoming increasingly important in decision-making and there is a tendency to expand environmental LCA into life cycle sustainability analysis (LCSA). This process requires methods to assess social and economic aspects, methods to integrate the three pillars, and methods to address the inherent uncertainty of long-term future perspectives. Some of these aspects have been highlighted during the session, which overall delivered an optimistic message.

Several examples were provided, especially regarding technology assessment (e.g., future power generation, advanced biofuel technologies, emerging technologies), making use of both quantitative and qualitative methods (e.g., framework for multi-criteria decision analysis-based sustainability assessment, LCA + life cycle costing + social life cycle assessment, economic models, surveys).

Social life cycle assessment (SLCA) was discussed and investigated, starting from the guidelines published by UNEP-SETAC1, first case studies were presented and the choice of the indicators to be used was discussed. The methodology is still in its infancy; there are still challenging methodological questions that need to be answered, which will provide research material for several years. Nevertheless, an important message came from the presenters: test the methodology on case studies to increase knowledge and the state of the practice, thereby accelerating methods development.

Life Cycle Management: Putting Life Cycle Thinking into Practice

The life cycle management (LCM) session, besides a few examples of integrating LCM into existing business processes, was mainly dominated by presentations of new tools to support small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in implementing the approach within a company. Streamlined tools, ecodesign tools, criteria for material selection, approaches for the monetization of environmental effects and many others targeted to specific applications and sectors were described. Some successful applications exist, for example in the field of sustainable procurement, but progress in real-world applications is slow. The LCM session challenged the LCA community to ask itself, to what extent tools are enough in implementing LCM in SMEs? The discussion emphasized the importance of knowledge, expertise and services to support SMEs in applying the new tools, and also on the need to get more SMEs involved.

New Developments in Life Cycle Impact Assessment

The session on life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) was one of the most attended and provided new methodological and scientific thoughts. The biggest session in terms of number of presentations, it focused on the following three topics: land use, water use and further developments (mainly occupational indoor and abiotic depletion).

The guidance and recommendations of the UNEP-SETAC land use group provided the starting point for presentations regarding land use impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services. A systematic review of existing methods for water use impacts was discussed, together with indications for deriving operational characterisation methods and factors. The increasingly importance of tools like GIS in resolving inventory data and in fostering LCIA modeling was highlighted. Even if some methodological aspects still have to be agreed upon (e.g., the degree of regional specificity), methods are being implemented: regional human health impacts from water use, global datasets to estimate land use impacts on biodiversity, characterisation factors (CFs) for greenhouse gas emission and water withdrawal, CFs for occupational indoor human health, new CFs for depletion of abiotic resources. These represent relevant and encouraging developments, which provide a real step toward the creation and acceptance of robust methods. However, most of the approaches are based on endpoint assessment, which is relatively uncertain. This prompted the question of whether these new methods are sufficiently reliable for LCIA applications, and the need to strengthen the link between life cycle inventory and LCIA.

Life Cycle Inventory – Footprinting and Critical Reviews

The topic at the core of the session was the comparability among carbon footprint studies, in order to guarantee good, reliable communication. Examples on different products were discussed, mainly in the food sector, and two main issues emerged. First, data availability and quality are still critical issues. The topic of data availability and quality has been dealt with since the beginning of life cycle inventory methods development. It influences the credibility and reliability of LCA applications, and still nowadays represents a critical issue. In this regard, important support comes from international initiatives (e.g., Database Registry presented at the meeting but also the activities of the European Platform on LCA). The second issue is the role of uncertainty analysis, even simplified, in guaranteeing the robustness of results, as discussed more in detail in the dedicated session.

All the sessions clearly showed that methodologies are rapidly evolving, especially in the field of impact assessment. The standardization process for carbon and water footprints studies, and the role of international initiatives, emerged as two important topics. Another interesting topic was the role of the life cycle approach in dealing with sustainability assessment. The expansion of LCA into LCSA is becoming increasingly important and requires methods to manage or counteract increasing complexity, and to address inherent uncertainty of long-term future projections. In this regard, important goals remaining to be achieved include improved analysis of market mechanisms, consumer behaviour, and physical constraints. To what extent the approaches should move towards the integration (hard link) or combination (soft link) of tools is still an open question that researchers are invited to think about.

The sustainability arena opens its door to all the SETAC fields. Now it is time to further strengthen the integration of different disciplines to promote more accurate and comprehensive assessments.

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