Skip main navigation

Basics of LCA

LCA is a technique for assessing the environmental impacts associated with a product at all stages of its life cycle.
Decorative image
© Deakin University

LCA is a technique for assessing the environmental impacts associated with a product at all stages of its life cycle.

It is a quantitative assessment approach that models the complex interactions between a product/service and the environment within system boundaries (explored later).

LCA has its roots in hard sciences and tends to adopt a post-positivist paradigm. It is relative in nature due to its use of the functional unit (also explored later).

LCA can be used to:

  • Select relevant indicators of environmental performance
  • Identify opportunities to improve environmental performance
  • Inform decision-makers on the impacts of a product and/or service
  • Market a product or service with an ecolabel (such as Climate Active or EPD)

The overall aim is to optimise a product’s environmental impact.

Principles

LCA provides a holistic approach to quantify environmental impacts, but is underpinned by four key principles as provided by the core standards introduced in the next step. These principles are:

  • Iterative approach: LCA is an iterative technique. The individual phase of an LCA uses results of other phases, which contributes to consistency and comprehensiveness.
  • Life cycle perspective (comprehensiveness): LCA considers the entire life cycle of a product. Through such a systematic overview and perspective, the shifting of a potential environmental burden between life cycle stages or individual processes can be identified and possibly avoided.
  • Modularity: Data for materials, parts, and other inputs shall be referred to as information modules and may represent the whole or a portion of the life cycle for those materials or parts.
  • Priority of scientific approach (hierarchy for data collection): Decisions within an LCA are preferably based on natural science. If this is not possible other scientific approaches (e.g. from social and economic sciences) may be used, or international conventions may be referred to.

Limitations

Limitations of LCA include:

  • It is not a complete assessment of all environmental issues, because only those identified during the goal and scope stage are considered.
  • It can rarely if ever include every process and capture every input and output due to system boundaries, data gaps, cut-off criteria, etc.
  • The data collected contains uncertainty.
  • Characterisation models are far from perfect.
  • Sensitivity and other analyses are not fully developed.

Essentially, LCA is one of several environmental management techniques, and may not necessarily be the most appropriate to use in all situations. It addresses potential impacts but does not predict absolute or potential impacts of products.

It’s also worth noting that there is no single method for conducting LCA, and LCA methodology itself is open to the inclusion of new scientific findings and improvements.

LCA also has a lot of terminology. It may be useful to acquaint yourself with common terms.

Research

Research LCA terminology. Is there anything you were familiar with already? What about terms new to you? Share some examples of either in the comments.

References

De Luca, A. I., Falcone, G., Stillitano, T., Iofrida, N., Strano, A., & Gulisano, G. (2018). Evaluation of sustainable innovations in olive growing systems: A Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment case study in southern Italy. Journal of Cleaner Production, 171, 1187–1202.

Hauschild, M.Z. (2018). Introduction to LCA Methodology. In: Hauschild, M., Rosenbaum, R., Olsen, S. (eds) Life Cycle Assessment. Springer, Cham.

© Deakin University
This article is from the free online

Foundations of Life Cycle Assessment Practice

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now