What is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)?
Life cycle thinking is fundamental when assessing the sustainability of products and of organisations. Life cycle assessment, or LCA, is a quantitative tool that helps implement this thinking.
An LCA facilitates the systematic quantitative assessment of products, both goods and services, in terms of environmental, human health, and resource consumption considerations. The full life cycle of a product is taken into account– this includes the supply of raw materials, processing, transport, retail, use, as well as end-of-life waste management.
LCA is implemented in 4 phases: goal and scope definition, inventory assessment, impact assessment, and, at each phase, interpretation.
An inventory is compiled for each of the stages in a products life cycle. This life cycle inventory consists of the resources consumed and the emissions into air, water and soil that are attributable to the product or organisation being assessed. Building this inventory requires background inventory data for energy, raw materials, etc, such as those found in the European Life Cycle Database (ELCD), the Life Cycle Data Network (LCDN), or from other sources outlined in the Platform’s Resource Directories.
The inventory of resources consumed and of emissions that are associated with a product are then analysed using different indicators in the life cycle impact assessment phase. This analysis is generally conducted in terms of various environmental, human health, as well as resource considerations. Environmental burdens include, for example, acid rain, summer smog, and climate change. Indicators are provided for human health in terms of e.g. cancer effects and impacts of particulate matter. Resources are assessed often in terms of e.g. scarcity and percentage of renewable energy. The calculation of these indicators is usually facilitated using standard lists of default factors, which are included in the many software tools available to support LCA implementation.
Life cycle assessment has evolved from early studies focused on energy. In the mid-nineties, in the context of environmental assessment, LCA was internationally standardized (ISO 14040); while already including considerations related to human health and raw materials. Further guidance is also available for different product groups and sectors. These LCAs are complemented by Life Cycle Costing (LCC) and Social Life Cycle Assessment (S-LCA).
Further information can be found throughout this Platform, but also here