20 Jun 2024

Beyond Life Cycle Assessment for a More Informed Decision-Making

Giuseppe Cecere, Lucia Rigamonti, Politecnico di Milano

In our pursuit of sustainability, we face a mix of environmental, economic and social factors, all shaped by cultural, political and regulatory influences. While we have made progress, finding the best ways to measure sustainability is still a challenge. That is where the session “LCA and Beyond - Integrating Sustainability and/or Other Dimensions for a More Informed Decision-Making“ at the SETAC Europe 34th Annual Meeting comes in. From integrating life cycle assessment (LCA) with traditional risk-based methods to incorporating techno-economic analyses into cradle-to-gate models, various efforts have been made to grasp the multifaceted nature of sustainability. Yet, achieving consensus on the most effective methodologies remains a hurdle, as demonstrated by the ongoing debate surrounding life cycle sustainability assessment (LCSA).

The session, held on Wednesday, 8 May, in Seville, aimed to pave the way for advancements in the evolving landscape of sustainability assessment and provided a platform for researchers to share advancements and experiences with LCA combined with new tools. For example, we discussed the integration of techno-economic analysis with LCA, as a way to enable a deeper understanding of the environmental and economic impacts of production processes. Innovative tools, such as semi-automated platforms, facilitate consistent assessments and reveal crucial trade-offs in sustainable fuel production.

Another noteworthy development highlighted was the European Commission’s Safe and Sustainable by Design (SSbD) framework, which represents a paradigm shift in how we approach the evaluation of chemicals and materials. This framework pushes for the integration of risk assessment (RA) with LCA to create a comprehensive evaluation that considers both safety and sustainability from the outset. This holistic approach is exemplified by BASF’s TripleS methodology, which incorporates human toxicity assessments into LCAs, providing a clearer picture of the direct and indirect impacts of chemicals and paving the way for more informed decision-making in product development and portfolio management.

In the realm of food production, incorporating nutritional aspects and planetary boundaries into LCA is crucial for ensuring sustainable practices. By considering the nutritional value of food products alongside their environmental impacts, we can promote healthier and more sustainable food systems. This holistic approach helps address the complex interplay between food production, health and environmental sustainability, ensuring that our food systems are resilient and capable of meeting the needs of future generations.

The discussion also delved into the potential role of biofuels in improving the sustainability of the transportation sector. This topic has gained attention due to the promising benefits biofuels offer in reducing carbon emissions. Evaluating various dimensions of sustainability, including economic and social factors alongside environmental impacts, has been a key focus. By considering different aspects ranging from cost to global warming, researchers have gained valuable insights into the impacts of biofuel sustainability. This comprehensive analysis could provide stakeholders and policymakers with a clearer understanding of the potential benefits and challenges associated with biofuel integration into the transportation sector, guiding efforts to promote sustainable practices and policies.

The session also highlighted the importance of balancing innovation with long-term environmental and social goals. A study on the fashion industry, where we see how growth strategies can sometimes hinder progress towards sustainability, was presented. Businesses often aim for continuous revenue growth through innovation, but this can inadvertently worsen environmental and social issues. By combining social LCA with LCA, we gain valuable insights into the environmental and social impacts, helping us weigh the trade-offs between profitability and sustainability efforts.

The societal life cycle costing (sLCC), and its application in the context of eco-design policies developed by the European Commission, were also important areas of focus. Specifically, sLCC was used in a broader framework designed to establish and prioritize eco-design requirements for various product groups.

Cutting-edge applications in the field of LCSA methodology couldn't be overlooked. The LCSA framework mirrors LCA in its structure and incorporates stakeholder involvement throughout the process in order to evaluate the impacts on all three dimensions of sustainability. It covers the entire life cycle of the product or the process and employs multi-criteria evaluation. Stakeholders play a crucial role in goal definition, impact category selection and data collection. Additionally, the LCSA integrates social and economic assessments guided by stakeholder engagement, aligning with responsible research and innovation principles. A case study on protein production from microalgae illustrates the practical application of the LCSA framework.

Additionally, the session featured numerous posters that facilitated discussions on integrating various methodologies with life cycle assessment. These posters encouraged critical reflection on a wide range of topics, highlighting the importance of developing life cycle thinking methodologies across different dimensions and possibilities.

In conclusion, the integration of diverse methodologies and approaches in sustainability assessment is essential for developing a comprehensive understanding of the multifaceted nature of sustainability. By embracing holistic and integrated approaches, we can navigate the complexities of sustainability and make informed decisions that promote sustainability across all dimensions, not only the environmental one. The discussion will continue in one of the next LCA discussion forums.

Author’s contact: [email protected]

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