May 26, 2022
Standing in a grocery store in New York City, you might think the orange from California is going to have a smaller carbon footprint than the one from Chile—but, depending on the orange in question, you could be wrong. A Life Cycle Assessment can help us understand why. Commonly referred to as an LCA study, it considers the environmental impact of a product, covering everything from the raw materials themselves to the energy use and transportation involved. That orange from Chile, for example, might actually be less carbon-intensive, as boat transport is much more efficient than trucking, even if the distance is greater.
LCAs can be used far beyond the grocery store. Today we’re seeing these studies leveraged to assess the environmental impact of new-to-world carbon removal and avoidance solutions. At Patch, we consider LCAs to be increasingly critical pieces of documentation for projects entering carbon markets.
An LCA is a top-to-bottom analysis of the environmental impacts of a given product or activity over the course of its entire “life”—from production to disposal. LCA is a standardized methodology ensuring reliability and transparency, developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). It’s one of the most prominent approaches to quantifying sustainability outcomes for products, businesses, and processes.
In practice, LCAs are used by both the private and public sector to provide transparency into the environmental footprint of processes, as well as to set regulation and certification guidelines. For instance, the architecture and building industry’s LEED certification, with which many people are familiar, now includes points for LCA consideration to encourage builders to account for the entire lifecycle of a building’s varied components in their decision-making. Environmental labels may also require LCA certification.
LCAs are not new. In the late 1960s, researchers began studying the lifecycle impact of various goods, starting with energy consumption and gradually broadening to include waste production, water use, and greenhouse gas emissions. That early work grew into a system of regulations and guidelines that set the standards for calculating the environmental impact of consumer goods.
There are a number of reasons why any company might choose to conduct an LCA on their products and processes. These may include:
Carbon credit project developers—especially those working on frontier engineered carbon removal and avoidance solutions—also conduct LCAs, often for specific reasons core to their business models, such as:
Often, certification approaches that exist for traditional carbon credit projects do not yet exist for new and innovative approaches to carbon removal and avoidance. An LCA can help serve as a foundation for establishing those verification and certification approaches in the future by clearly outlining how a process works and establishing the emissions profile of the processes.
There are four main phases of an LCA:
For evaluating carbon-reducing products and activities, the LCA approach offers significant benefits—as well as some drawbacks.
Overall, the LCA approach provides a thorough and well-developed way of considering the true impact of any activity. In an ideal world, all carbon removal and avoidance projects would already have a form of third party verification and certification. For those that don't, however, other tools can be used to better understand the full picture. Ultimately, it's “life cycle thinking”—or the consideration of the entirety of an activity's environmental impact—that must be applied systematically as we consider how our actions affect the trajectory of climate change.
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