- What is LCA?, The Significance of LCA, Status and the Challenges of the LCA Approach -
College of POLICY SCIENCE, Ritsumeikan University
LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) is a method of comprehending the environmental burden from circulating CO2 and environmental pollutants emitted, amount of energy and materials used through a series of process –mining raw materials, processing manufacturing, commodity distribution, consumption, reuse, recycling and waste disposal; that is, the whole life cycle of a product.
Using an electric home appliance as an example, the LCA includes all the following processes: mining copper ore, iron ore and bauxite as a source of aluminum, importing the mineral ores as raw materials, production of iron and aluminum, part manufacturing, assembly, transport of the products to outlet stores, energy use when a consumer is using them, being taken to outlet stores after use and recycled, and disposing of the remaining parts.
The Coca-Cola Company started the study of LCA in 1969. Subsequently, the UK in 1972, the co-op in Switzerland in 1984 and Leiden University in Holland in 1991 started LCA as well. In Japan, the LCA Japan forum was established through collaboration between industry, educational institutions and the administration and a database was formulated through necessity. As a result, the first LCA Project between 1998 and 2002 and the second LCA Project between 2003 and 2005 were implemented. In addition, in 2004, the Institute of Life Cycle Assessment, Japan, was established.
First, LCA determines which stage of products or services makes the environmental load high. Consequently, by intensively decreasing the environmental load at that stage, it can be effectively reduced. Using a refrigerator as an example, LCA assessment of a consumer-electronics maker indicated that a peak amount of approximately 88% CO2 is discharged when a consumer uses a refrigerator, whereas the parts and materials used in a refrigerator, waste and assembly and transportation emit approximately 9%, 2% and 1%, respectively. That is, energy saving during use is considered to be the top priority. The introduction of LCA decreases the environmental load. Simultaneously, LCA advances rationalization of production and planning for a company, so that the improvement in recycling also brings about economical and managerial benefits.
However, when LCA is implemented, it's unavoidable that subjectivity is more likely to be added concerning use range or use coverage with respect to the resources of an object. Also, in order to demonstrate a case of environmental superiority, there is a chance of performing arbitrary analysis and assessment. Standards on an implementation method of LCA were conducted by the International Organization for Standardization based on the mentioned background.
In June 1997, ISO14040, which are the principles of LCA and regulations of its framework, was issued. In this ISO14040, LCA consists of “Establishment of a purpose and a range of research”, “Inventory Analysis”, “Impact Assessment” and “Interpretation”. The standard numbers are: ISO14041, ISO14042 and ISO14043. Hereinafter, the contents of the standards are described.
(1) Establishment of a purpose and a range of research
This is the step that clarifies the purpose of LCA implementation and to stipulate prerequisites and constraint conditions.
(2) Inventory analysis
“Inventory analysis” is the step that calculates environmental load in every stage of a life cycle; that is, input data and output data based on the whole life cycle. This is the most general step in the process of LCA implementation. However, since labor, time and expenses are required for data collection, data is estimated or only easily collected data, or data which can expect a large environmental load, is also likely to be used.
(3) Impact assessment
“Impact assessment” is the step where the results obtained from the “Inventory analysis” are classified into items on environmental impact (impact categories to the environment), such as “global warming” and “air pollution”, and the degree of environmental impact on every item is evaluated. Actually, various concrete techniques used in this step have been suggested, but a standard one has not been established yet.
Based on the results obtained from the “Inventory analysis” and the “Impact assessment”, “Interpretation" is the step that summarizes impact on environment and possible improvement. However, there are no clear interpretative criteria for this interpretation at the present time.
At the International Conference on Eco Balance where research on LCA is released, during the introduction period, analysis on general-purpose materials, such as iron, copper and electricity and simple products, including packaging materials, were usually announced. In late 1990, many cases of household appliances and automobiles were seen. Currently, advanced engineering products and information services like IT, as well as non-engineering industries, such as agriculture, forestry and fishing are on the rise. Especially, recovery of data collection which had been difficult and evaluation of cases of venous logistics such as waste disposal are increasing.
Bias in materials and products registered into the database, amount of environmental load substances covered, establishment of complete evaluation techniques and the defeat of uncertainty data will be future challenges. It is required that research institutions and companies work on these challenges. Furthermore, by releasing the implementation results of LCA correctly and having consumers utilize it, consumers can chose more eco-friendly products and whether a company’s product development is eventually considered environmentally friendly can be evaluated.