Four Benefits of Life-Cycle Analysis
How a Life-Cycle Analysis Can Improve Your Environmental Impact
By Dr. Zhichao Wang, P.E., EcoEngineers
Recently, think tank SustainAbility and research consultancy GlobeScan released a report correlating companies that were ranked as top sustainability leaders to those that performed life-cycle analysis. For those who have already used the results of a life-cycle analysis to improve their sustainability, this won’t come as too much of a surprise. For those who have yet to dive into the world of life-cycle thinking, however, this report should be seen as opportunity knocking.
So, what is a life-cycle analysis? Also known as a life-cycle assessment or LCA, this process is a cradle-to-grave-approach to measure the environmental footprint of a product, a system, or a process. Below is an example of the inputs of an LCA in the transportation fuel sector.
The purpose of an LCA is to help organizations better understand the environmental impact of products they buy or sell, to mitigate that environmental impact, and to develop an effective environmental marketing strategy.
An LCA is an aggregate measurement of the environmental impact of a particular product throughout its life cycle (thus “cradle to grave”). The ultimate goal of LCA is to quantify the effectiveness of a company’s sustainability efforts and to help the organization’s leadership make more informed decisions going forward.
There are two main types of LCA: attributional and consequential. The difference is essentially a matter of scope. An attributional LCA allocates all pollutants, resources, and exchanges to products and processes within a specific system boundary. A consequential LCA, on the other hand, looks beyond the immediate system boundary and studies how related systems are impacted by changes within on system. Which LCA a business uses depends on its specific goals. Regardless of type, the overall structure and steps of conducting an LCA look pretty similar, and often follows International Standards for Organization (ISO) 14040 guidelines.
There are four LCA phases that help a business conduct a targeted assessment designed to address its specific strategic goals.
Phase #1: Goal and scope definition
A business first needs to figure out what it wants to accomplish with its assessment. The organization’s overall business and environmental goals should drive the goals for each LCA and determine specific LCA elements such as the analysis system boundaries and what units will be used to report the findings.
Phase #2: Life-cycle inventory analysis, or LCI
This phase includes collecting relevant input and output data of the system that’s being studied. Because the goals have already been defined by this point, only data necessary for the study is collected.
Phase #3: Life-cycle impact assessment, or LCIA
In this phase, the environmental footprint of the product/system being studied is calculated. Specifically, the LCIA is meant to help a business better understand the environmental significance of the data it collected in the previous phase.
Phase #4: Interpretation
This phase is where the results of the previous phase are summarized and discussed in the context of the business. A key aspect here is knowing which part of the business operation, or which raw materials are primarily responsible for the environmental impact assessed.
These four phases are straightforward, yet powerful. The results of this process can provide a number of benefits for organizations that are looking to develop a more sustainable business.
The Benefits of Life-Cycle Analysis
In case you’re still wondering why a company would want to take advantage of an LCA, let’s look at a few of the ways it can provide value to a business:
- It quantifies carbon emissions and other environmental impacts. Since carbon emissions come with financial liabilities, knowing the exact emissions a product is responsible for is extremely valuable. An LCA will provide you with this information.
- It identifies ways to improve environmental performance. An LCA also provides you with the information you need to reduce the environmental impact (and financial liability) going forward. Since an LCA identifies the most environmentally sensitive product or inputs, it is critical to crafting a mitigation strategy.
- It helps improve environmental marketing. With hard data in hand, you can leverage your sustainability efforts to create greater transparency and customer loyalty through eco-labeling, environmental product press releases, and other eco-focused marketing strategies.
- It gives you concrete numbers for your environmental attributes. If you’re running a business in which profits hinge on environmental attributes, an LCA can ensure you’re maximizing your revenues. For example, if you’re involved in the business of producing renewable natural gas from dairy manure, having an accurate picture of the project’s environmental score will play a major role in determining its feasibility and profitability.
An LCA can provide you with a clearer picture of your environmental impact and help you make more informed decisions to improve your company’s sustainability going forward. If these things matter to your company — and they should — then you should consider LCA an essential part of doing business from now on.
At EcoEngineers, we take a 360-degree approach to the low-carbon market that includes six areas: education and training; regulatory engagement; carbon life-cycle analysis; asset development coaching; compliance management; and auditing.We’ve performed more than 300 carbon life-cycle analyses since 2015. So, whether you’re evaluating the carbon intensity of a product or the carbon footprint at a business, government institution, or municipality, we have the strategies and solutions to help you reach your carbon management goals. Contact us today to learn more.
Dr. Zhichao Wang, P.E., is the Life-Cycle Analysis Director at EcoEngineers, a consulting and auditing firm that specializes in low-carbon fuels and decarbonization strategies. He is a national expert in conducting life-cycle analysis and leads a team of scientists and engineers who provide vital calculations for municipalities, businesses, and low-carbon fuel producers looking to lower their carbon footprint.