Life cycle analysis (LCA) is an essential tool in establishing baseline environmental impacts from a specific process, product, or infrastructure, and can also connect economic and social impacts depending on the end goal. Ideally, the main outcome of an LCA is a detailed quantitative documentation of environmental impacts for a process or product from cradle to grave, meaning cultivation and manufacturing of each feedstock to the end use or disposal. The analysis may include one or multiple impacts with the most common being: greenhouse gas (GHG) and other air emissions, water use and pollutants, energy usage, and waste production. When conducting an LCA it is important to consider the implications of system boundaries, feedstocks, energy use, co-product emission allocation methods, product end use, and differences in framework guidance. LCA experts have experience with many applications of life cycle analysis and can help clients navigate the complex nature of LCA implementation, as it can be a large undertaking.
The Latin phrase ‘primum non nocere’ means ‘first, do no harm.’ This principle that has long been used in medicine is now being applied to a range of products and services. An increasing number of consumers and businesses want to buy or supply goods that minimize environmental consequences, such as emissions of greenhouse gases. However, fairly comparing impacts can be challenging. This is where life cycle analysis, also known as life cycle assessment and commonly referred to simply as LCA, has a role. LCAs examine every phase of a product from raw material sourcing through the end of life with the goal of quantifying energy inputs, greenhouse gas emissions, and other environmental metrics.
Application of ‘life cycle thinking” is often a new perspective, not previously considered, and LCAs are a powerful tool that can reveal supply chain inefficiencies, opportunities for improving internal processes, and environmental consequences of products after the sale. Insights gained can guide decision-making that not only minimize harm to nature but also reduce cost and exposure to regulatory risk.
To maximize usefulness, LCAs must be set up properly with clear goals and consistent bases, as well as be performed methodically with unbiased data. Scoping is important to determine the specific need met by a product and its competitors as well as the environmental impacts that will be considered; these answer the questions – ‘who is playing the game?’ and ‘how will it be scored?’ And as with any analysis, the results are highly dependent on the quality of data, so all efforts should be made to avoid the problem of ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ Finally, the results should then be presented in a clear way that enables easy interpretation and development of actionable strategies.
LCA consultants can use life cycle analysis to assist clients in several ways. LCA modeling is a useful business tool in the process design phase when determining which combination of process options will result in the most sustainable process during the initial design or upgrades of a system. Creating LCA models can help rank process variables with the highest impact and understand how variables interact to reduce and minimize overall impacts. Similarly, LCA can be used to determine whether the acquisition of an operation will be a sustainable investment. Stakeholder and consumer demands are increasingly driving the use of LCA across many sectors such as manufacturing and fuels. Life cycle analysis is commonly used to establish the benefits of switching to bio-based, renewable resources when compared to the business as usual or petroleum-based alternative. LCA consultants with regulatory experience can be valuable in helping navigate and apply required frameworks in alignment with the multitude of product certifications and government incentive programs. Some common applications of LCA frameworks include certification under ISO 14040 standards for sustainable operation, and generation of credits for GHG reduction in the biofuels market, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), the California Air Resource Board’s (CARB) Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), as well as the European Union’s (EU) Renewable Energy Directive (RED). An LCA expert can evaluate products and processes to benchmark against industry norms or identify opportunities to reduce those impacts. Taking the LCA application one step further, an LCA expert can tie LCA and business models together to optimize that balance of impacts and operations for a more sustainable solution.
Lee Enterprises Consulting is the world’s premier bioeconomy consulting group, with over 150 highly qualified experts, many serving in the life cycle. They can perform studies, interpret results and help address the opportunities revealed, in other renewable energy and renewable chemical areas. Take a look at our experts and the services we provide. Most of our experts are also available to advise and serve as expert witnesses in bioeconomy litigation matters. For the larger projects, we specialize in putting together full-service, interdisciplinary teams with one point of contact. Call us at 1+ (501) 833-8511 or email us for more information.
See also: Life Cycle Analysis