SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
17 December 2015
Volume 16 Issue 12

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SETAC North America LCA Advisory Group Organizes Life Cycle Inventory Road Mapping Workshop

Bruce Vigon, SETAC Scientific Affairs Manager

The SETAC North America Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) Advisory Group began its current road mapping activities in 2013 with emphasis on the interpretation step (“Supporting Decision Makers with LCA”) of the ISO framework. This led to the release of the first roadmap piece in 2015 and milestones such as new templates for visualization. Following on this successful effort, the LCA North America Advisory group planned and conducted a workshop at the recent SETAC North America annual meeting in Salt Lake City.  The purpose of this workshop was to begin a process for creating a roadmap toward certain advancements in life cycle inventory (LCI) practice. Despite being the most mature of the phases of conducting a life cycle assessment, with SETAC’s involvement in providing technical frameworks dating back to the early 1990’s, there are still areas where the practice could be improved and made more technically sound.  Also, over time various “flavors” of inventory analysis have emerged, e.g. consequential, spatially-explicit, dynamic, and input-output.  Each of these has its own strengths and areas of application, but also aspects where methodology can use further development.

The workshop in Salt Lake City began with an overview of the advisory group’s motivation for the road mapping activities. Even in the early days of LCA, there was a desire to identify key challenges that would benefit from focused research, such as allocation in multi-output systems. Over time, these challenges have evolved into more complex issues related to the practice and interpretation of LCA for decision-making:

  • Value choices
  • Harmonization of uncertainty and variability
  • Lack of data, and
  • Ill-characterized uncertainty.

Activity on the next pieces of the roadmap is beginning now with the planned formation of at least two working groups. The first, under the direction of Lise Laurin, will focus on uncertainty in LCA. The second (and possibly third) working group(s) will address key challenges associated with life cycle inventory. Given the broad nature of this topic, the workshop was designed to facilitate dialogue that could be used to narrow the focus of the LCI working group(s) to key challenges identified by workshop participants.

A key part of the workshop was the information sharing and brainstorming session. The session began with presentations from K.C. Morris (NIST) and Brandon Kuczenski (University of California at Santa Barbara). Morris provided an overview of current standards being prepared through ASTM to address sustainable manufacturing. A crucial part of these standards is better defining inventory data needs to guide industry on data collection and improved data availability to support sustainability assessment using tools like LCA. Kuczenski then discussed the need for, and potential benefit of, applying semantic modeling concepts to life cycle inventory. Such a shift in data management for LCA would make inventory modeling more amenable and adaptable to emerging needs, such as increased spatial and temporal resolution during impact assessment.

The presentations helped provide a vision for what the future of inventory modeling might look like in terms of standardization and industrial needs, as well as computational tools to optimize the inventory modeling process. With these considerations in mind, the group was asked to brainstorm a list of potential topics for the LCI road mapping activity. First, participants took turns sharing needs and challenges from their own LCA experiences, which typically provoked more detailed discussions by the group as it sought to better define the various issues and identify common themes amongst them. The resulting topics included:

  • New frontiers in impact assessment and decision needs leads to new types of flows
    • It is not easily understood how to add new types of flows in LCA software
  • Spatial and temporal resolution in LCI data to support site-specific impact modeling
    • Instead of compartmentalization, how to carry contextual information (metadata) with the data (e.g. instead of ‘emission to air, high density;’ emission to air at point X and time Y for population Z)
  • Data quality and metadata
    • More information on data and assumptions on data
  • Visualization tools, visualization-based query
  • Flexibility to add new concepts, impact methods and data sources
  • Naming conflicts, pulling data from different sources (interoperability), and
  • Data scarcity – open source data is very limited, higher quality data is confidential or expensive.

After the brainstorming dialogues were completed, participants were asked to write down and submit what they felt were the three biggest challenges that warrant a road mapping activity. The workshop facilitators analyzed this information and identified the consensus challenges and needs. Breakout groups were then used to better define these challenges and identify suitable goals or questions that should eventually be answered by the proposed roadmaps.

Major Issues Identified
Four major issues were identified by the assembled group. These are summarized as follows:

  • Inventory model description and revision—Current LCI modeling techniques have weaknesses in the areas of model structure, clarity of linking to proxy or less than perfect data, clarity of allocation, assumptions, observations, and inclusion of modelers’ assumptions on how the data might be reused.
  • Incentivizing data sharing—Need robust and easier ways to allow multiple parties (e.g., universities, governments, industry) to share their data and part of those solutions need to address confidential business information, proxies and data gaps. How can data sharing be incentivized?
  • Expanding LCI data—Need the ability to expand what we consider life cycle inventory data and its spatial and temporal scale; e.g., water use, water use location, uncertainty around the water use data.
  • Enhanced information analysis and management—Need methods to enable practitioners to access an overview, zoom and filter operation that provides details on demand; advanced querying mechanisms such as the ability to do a semantic search; and allow interaction and visualization.

A fifth area was identified – data interoperability between tools, databases and methods, but was not investigated in further detail due to other global efforts in this area. The group decided to pursue the first two of these issues in two separate working groups

Next Steps
The SETAC North America Life Cycle Assessment Advisory Group Steering Committee is currently seeking practitioners interested in working in either of these working groups. Once a core group of people has been identified, the group will decide when to meet and begin discussions on the topic. If there are insufficient people to work on the topic, the two groups may be merged.

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