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  1. The Climate-KIC team
  2. Michael Hauschild SPARK! lecture
  3. Saturday, 07 November 2015
How can the life cycle assessment of a product indicate it's impact on sustainability, especially in relation to climate change?
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  1. Oliver Smith
  2. 8 months ago
  3. #600
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For me the critical thing here would be assessing whether this product can be re-used in its entirety after its initial intended function has outlived its life, meaning, will any component whatsoever, or part of a component or process used generate a waste product or material (gas, liquid, solid) that cannot be easily absorbed by nature. In short, will any part of this product end up in a landfill or unfit for use again in the larger scheme of global manufacturing.

To me this of key importance when assessing the life-cycle assessment with regards to its impact on sustainability, otherwise the only information you get is that the product has an impact but this relies on the customer to make a decision about whether this impact is manageable or not, something that not many customers are sufficiently informed enough to do.

Impacts on sustainability, for me, consider whether or not the material will have a long-standing negative effect on the environment, such that it cannot heal/repair itself in a short time frame, for example 25-75 years (one human lifespan).
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The life cycle assessment of a product is utilized to indicate the burdens the product has over its lifetime on the environment by compiling an inventory of relevant energy and material inputs, and their associated releases that impact environmental integrity. It assesses the product starting from raw resource extraction, processing, manufacturing, distribution, use, & recycling, or disposal during end of life. This provides insights into the most damaging phases and their associated effects on e.g.: environmental management, GHG emissions and climate change, energy efficiency and renewable resource utilization, water soil and air quality, as well as waste management.

By having this information available, it is much easier to assess the sustainability of a product and where the most attention needs to be placed. However, even though this is good to understand the product’s material flows and impact on a holistic level, it doesn’t quite tell the whole picture of sustainability. In terms of environmental impact related to the product, we must also consider how often the product will be used and what sort of design it has. For example, it may have a very low impact across all phases, but it is designed to by a high consumption item, meaning this impact will be multiplied many times over. When comparing it to a product that has a longer use phase for achieving the same purpose, it may show a distorted picture and the difference must be assessed to determine the best sustainable scenario. In another case, the sustainability of more durable goods could be improved by engineering and design principles—if a product is designed with materials that have a high impact when extracting or manufacturing, then the use phase should be extended as long as possible, and a more sustainable product should reflect this. Furthermore, the end of life phase should also be optimized for recycling, which may be simply part of the product design and is something that LCA doesn’t take into account.

This is where the LCA falls short on its ability to indicate impact on sustainability as it is only one dimension of sustainability according to the three pillar framework that is required to understand the complete sustainable picture. The other two dimensions include the social aspects and economic costs that it carries and measure their negative and positive benefits and attempt to develop the whole picture the product over time with all stakeholders. As there is no required standard for all products to adhere to, partly because it is very difficult to conduct & enforce, consumers remain relatively unaware of these concepts and typically have to make their own investigation and decisions for the sake of sustainable living.
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I agree with professor Hauschild that LCA is a promising tool to make an individual’s environmental impact tangible and easier to compare. In my opinion it is essential to have a common metric to be able to make a truly informed decision about your daily consumption behaviors. On the other hand, I think that LCA is no panacea for assessing everyone’s true environmental impact and is lacking some crucial information. For instance, I do agree with what has been said about the importance of including information on the overall lifespan of a product and its potential re-use.

However, regardless of all the information that need to be considered to be able to calculate solid LCAs, one big component that has been neglected so far is: the user. I believe that a tool is only good if the people that are intended to use it actually understand it.

My past experience has shown me that even if you provide people with the information that the product they are using has an x amount of CO2 equivalent it merely has an impact on their behavior as it is very hard to put that number into context. It is a good and very important first step to use LCA for making environmental impact comparable but I think it is equally important to make the impact understandable. In his lecture professor Hauschild suggests a carbon budget for every person which can be influenced by certain behavior, e.g. eating less meat allows me to take the car instead of the bike next week.
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