Life Cycle Assessment: an effective or overly complex solution?
Not everything that counts can be measured. Not everything that can be measured counts.
- Albert Einstein
With growing concerns surrounding the environmental impacts of goods and services there has been a rising interest in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). Exponents of this approach claim that it can help companies identify environmental ‘hot-spots’ in their supply chain and work towards addressing these (Maung, 2008). Data acquisition is however notoriously difficult when the supply chain is long and the approach has been questioned on the basis of cost (González et al., 2002) .
A number of organisations within the UK have tried to address this issue through the development of PAS2050 compliant assessment tools, using LCA methods. Within the UK, the E- CO2 project, The University of Aberdeen, AB Sustain, Agri Assist and Cranfield University have all developed ‘carbon-calculators’ which considerably reduce the amount of time needed to assess agricultural products. Growing interest by retailers has contributed to the development of these tools and with the recent announcement by Caroline Spelman MP that companies on the London Stock Exchange will have to report their levels of greenhouse gas emissions, we are likely to see further expansion in this area.
There are, however, some concerns over the application of LCA to agricultural systems, for example Bakshi (2002) highlights that it tends to ignore the significant role of ecosystem services (e.g. rain, pollination, soil health) in delivering a product or service and that considering such services to be ‘free’, has contributed to their decline. Similarly the common use of economic allocation within LCA (i.e. attributing environmental burdens according to their financial value) has been criticised, as economic values can reflect market failures within supply chains (Pelletier and Tyedmers, 2007).
Others have pointed out the focus on carbon footprinting (as a sub-set of LCA) has resulted in other environmental impact categories being left by the wayside and sub optimisation of the system as whole (Knudsen et al., 2011). The exclusion of soil carbon sequestration from the PAS2050 standards has also been criticised, in particular by farmers who maintain pasture based low input/output systems, which may compare less favourably to intensive systems per kg of product (Measures, 2012).
Attempts have been made in recent years to extend LCA to other elements such as biodiversity, soil carbon and water use (e.g. Jeanneret et al., 2008; Koehler, 2008; De Schryver et al., 2010; Penman et al., 2010; Knudsen et al., 2011) however many of these approaches add degrees of complexity to an already time-intensive approach. Alternative systems of assessing sustainability have been suggested and applied with some success through the use of visual approaches, such as radar diagrams within the Public Goods Tool, to display interactions and trade-offs (Lampkin et al., 2006). The advantages such approaches offer is that an overview is presented, without requiring hours of data-collection, although over-simplification is clearly a risk.
Overall it would seem that for assessing carbon footprints at least, LCA is the best method currently available. Clearly there is scope for improvement through incorporation of environmental, economic and social indicators and this is something the Organic Research Centre is trying to address through its work within a Defra funded research project. The necessary trade-off between the need to take a number of sustainability objectives into account and the required level of detail is something that needs to be considered in this context and it is possible that the combined use of LCA and a visual diagrammatic overview could be applied in the future.
Laurence Smith works as a sustainability researcher at the Organic Research Centre in the UK.
Bakshi, B.R., 2002. A thermodynamic framework for ecologically conscious process systems engineering. Computers & Chemical Engineering 26, 269-282.
De Schryver, A., Goedkoop, M., Leuven, R., Huijbregts, M., 2010. Uncertainties in the application of the species area relationship for characterisation factors of land occupation in life cycle assessment. The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 15, 682-691.
González, B., Adenso-Dı́az, B., González-Torre, P.L., 2002. A fuzzy logic approach for the impact assessment in LCA. Resources, Conservation and Recycling 37, 61-79.
Jeanneret, P., Baumgartner, D., Knuchel, R., Gaillard, G., 2008. Integration of biodiversity as impact category for LCA in agriculture (SALCA-Biodiversity). 6th International Conference on LCA in the Agri-Food Sector, Zurich, November, 6.
Knudsen, M., Hermanse, J., Halberg, N., Andreasen, L., Williams, A., 2011. LIfe Cycle Asssessment of Organic Food and Farming Systems: Methodological Challenges Related to Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Carbon Sequestration. Organic Agriculture and Climate Change Mitigation: A Report of the Round Table on Organic Agriculture and Climate Change.
Koehler, A., 2008. Water use in LCA: managing the planet’s freshwater resources. The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 13, 451-455.
Lampkin, N., Fowler, S., Jackson, A., Jeffreys, I., Lobley, M., Measures, M., Padel, S., Reed, M., Roderick, S., Woodward, L., 2006. Sustainability assessment for organic farming – integrating financial, environmental, social and animal welfare benchmarking. Aspects of Applied Biology, What will organic farming deliver? Warwick: Association of Applied Biologists., p. 5.
Maung, Z., 2008. Carbon Footprints - Made to Measure. Ethical Corporation, Dec 2008 - Jan 2009.
Measures, M., 2012. Carbon emissions from extensive livestock. Organic Producer Conference 2012, Aston University, Birmingham.
Pelletier, N., Tyedmers, P., 2007. Feeding farmed salmon: Is organic better? Aquaculture 272, 399-416.
Penman, T., Law, B., Ximenes, F., 2010. A proposal for accounting for biodiversity in life cycle assessment. Biodiversity and Conservation 19, 3245-3254.