Green Scene: Looking at the Latest on Life Cycle Assessment

Setting science based targets, blockchain and the uncertainties in life cycle assessment (LCA) are key concerns in this expanding area of environmental evaluation.

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The 2018 American Center for Life Cycle Assessment (ACLCA) annual conference brought together more than 230 participants from industry, academia, government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) together in Fort Collins, Colorado to discuss the current state of life cycle assessment (LCA) and its many applications.

For the past three years, WSP USA has been an organizational member of ACLCA, and Julie Sinistore has represented WSP on the ACLCA board of directors and as vice chair of the education committee. During the recent conference, board members discussed important LCA matters, including updates to the ISO standards that govern LCA, education efforts in LCA and planning for future LCA events.

Several themes emerged from the conference, including the importance of LCA as it relates to other topics, such as science-based greenhouse gas (GHG) target setting, the sustainability potential of blockchain and uncertainty in LCA.

Using LCA in Science Based Target Setting

Application of LCA for science based targets (SBTs) is an area of growing interest, and at the conference, Sinistore and WSP consultant Jordan Chamberlain provided some examples during their presentation on the topic. They explained how reduction targets based on the level of decarbonization are needed to maintain global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius, as compared to pre-industrial temperatures.

 

There are many ways LCA can help inform and track progress towards achieving an SBT, especially in relation to value chain targets, also known as Scope 3. The results of an LCA can help set Scope 3 targets and ensure that the target covers a substantial amount of an organization’s total scope 3 emissions.

 

For example, a screening-level LCA could be used to understand the breakdown of an organization’s Scope 3 emissions that is tailored to a company’s specific products and services. The specific results that an LCA creates could provide more accuracy than other methods for calculating Scope 3 emissions.

 

Once Scope 3 emissions are quantified, an ISO-conformant LCA based on primary data from the organization’s products and services can help ensure that the target set is accurate, attainable and trackable over time.

Sustainability Applications of Blockchain

Blockchain , a digital distributed ledger in which transactions are chronologically and immutably tracked, is becoming widely recognized as a useful tool for sustainability and LCA.

 

Sinistore and Martina Prox, of the Forum for Sustainability and Life Cycle Innovation (FSCLI), moderated a plenary panel on the sustainability applications of blockchain. “Driving Towards Sustainability in the Blockchain Vehicle” and its follow-up deep-dive special session was one of two full-conference sessions at the event.

 

Panelists Aldyen Donnelly, director of carbon economics at Nori; and Tolga Yaprak from iPoint engaged with the moderators and the audience in a broad discussion on the ways that blockchain could be a useful tool to for sustainability and LCA.

 

One LCA application of blockchain is tracking the origins and movements of products. If these products are also tagged with environmental information, this can increase transparency of environmental impacts. One way to achieve this would be to include the results of Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) in tracked information.

 

Donnelly highlighted another application of blockchain to avoid double-counting of renewable energy and carbon offsets. This could increase the accuracy of GHG emissions and energy accounting and LCA.

 

Yaprak shared his experience in using blockchain to track conflict minerals through the supply chain and how increased transparency and confidence in the accuracy of the system brings accountability to conflict minerals throughout the supply chain.

 

Combining conflict minerals, full material disclosure and LCA in the tracking of information with an immutable ledger of sustainability information could be very powerful. The security and higher-level of confidence in the validity of data increases the potential rewards to suppliers for participating in blockchain platforms.

 

The audience asked questions on how blockchain can empower the circular economy by enabling materials-tracking from end-of-life to the second life of the product and reduce transaction costs in renewable energy markets by eliminating the need for intermediaries, while simultaneously improving the consistency of tracking.

Uncertainty in LCA

Many presentations during the conference touched on the importance and complexity of assessing uncertainty in LCA. On the second day of the conference, as a part of the ACLCA education committee’s work to expand understanding of uncertainty, Sinistore joined Laurie Wright, Lise Laurin, and Sangwon Suh for a presentation on “The Wild Wild West: Teaching Uncertainty in LCA.”

The session focused on how to explain the often-nebulous topic of uncertainty to students, practitioners, the public and clients, and stimulated debate on methods to teach and communicate the usefulness of uncertainty analysis as a part of LCA.

Wright led an activity called “The Mystery Box,” in which attendees broke into small groups and tried to diagram what the inside of a 3D-printed box with a small ball bearing in it looked like, based only on what they could feel by manipulating it. After each group sketched their ideas, the groups shared their ideas with each other to gain consensus on the internal geometry of the box. When the box was opened it revealed that each group had come close to mapping its internal structure, but no group was exactly right.

The activity perfectly illustrated some fundamentals of LCA. Processes and models are often treated as a “black box” in which there is some certainty about what goes in and what comes out, but often uncertainty about what happens inside the box. Also, different LCA practitioners will produce different results even if they start with the same information.

Suh’s presentation on published methods for quantifying and dealing with uncertainty highlighted the potential consequences of incorrect communication. He noted a headline about an incorrect claim by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035, which was rooted in an inconsistent treatment of uncertainty in calculation, as well as miscommunication of this uncertainty.

Sinistore followed with a description of the policy implications of uncertainty in the modeled GHG emissions from soils when calculating the total carbon impact of cellulosic ethanol. According to the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS2), for a fuel to qualify as an advanced biofuel it must reduce GHG emissions by 60 percent when compared to a 2006 gasoline baseline. Where the feedstock is grown (i.e., the location’s soil properties and regional climate) determines the emissions from feedstock production and can be the deciding factor if the fuel passes or fails this emissions reduction test.

Laurin illustrated the power of uncertainty analysis in LCA to reduce the burdens of data collection. Her first example was to determine if the precision of transportation data has a substantive effect on the results of a product LCA. As she put it, “uncertainty is your friend!”

Even still, uncertainty is a concept that is difficult to grasp and may represent a key barrier to understanding and communicating LCAs effectively.

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