What is Life Cycle Assessment? (LCA)
What is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)?
By definition, life cycle assessment (LCA) is a scientific methodology to assess global environmental impacts associated with the life cycle of a product or process. Beyond this generic definition, here at Minviro we see LCA as a comprehensive and reliable tool that enables environmentally informed decision-making throughout all stages of a project’s or product’s life. Whether you’re a junior mining company, an operational battery manufacturer, or an investment firm with assets in the mining and metal space, quantifying environmental impacts through LCA provides a detailed insight into where mitigation efforts can be most effective for your product, process, or supply chain.
How is LCA different from other environmental reporting tools?
Whilst Environmental Impact (Social) Assessments (EI(S)As) provide essential information on the local impacts of a project, and Greenhouse Gas Inventories (GHGIs) give a high-level overview of Scope 1 and 2 emissions (see definitions below), only LCA quantifies all three emission scopes at a global scale and considers a broad range of other impact categories. Supply chain emissions are becoming particularly important, especially in the electrical vehicle (EV) and associated industries, as the upstream emissions of all materials used to manufacture a complete lithium-ion cell often equal or outweigh those related to direct emissions and energy use (i.e. scopes 1 and 2, respectively).1
- Scope 1: Direct GHG emissions (e.g. furnace off-gas, combustion of fuels).
- Scope 2: Indirect GHG emissions from consumption of purchased electricity, heat, or steam (e.g. emissions embodied in grid power or embodied in steam at an industrial park).
- Scope 3: Other indirect emissions such as the extraction and production of purchased materials and fuels, transport-related activities in vehicles not owned or controlled by the reporting entity, electricity-related activities (e.g. T&D losses) not covered in scope 2, outsourced activities, and waste disposal. Scope 3 emissions can be either “upstream” or “downstream”. In a cradle-to-gate LCA, “upstream” scope 3 must be included.
Although GHG emissions and global warming potential (GWP) tend to be at the forefront of clients' minds, another characteristic of LCA that makes it unique is the ability to identify environmental burden shifting through assessment of multiple environmental impact categories. Using the Environmental Footprint 3.1 method, developed by the European Commission, we can assess up to 16 different impact categories including water use, land use, acidification, particulate matter, and more. This means that when trying to mitigate the climate change impacts, clients can understand the influence those decisions may have on other impact categories.
How is a LCA conducted?
All LCAs conducted by Minviro comply with the ISO 140402 and 140443 standards, which set out the principles, framework, requirements, and guidelines that LCA practitioners should conform to in order to produce fair and accurate results. In these documents, four phases of LCA are described:
1. Goal and scope definition: Defining the goal and scope of a particular LCA study is the first phase of performing a LCA and influences all subsequent stages. Whilst it is easy to lump the two terms ‘goal’ and ‘scope’ together, it is very important to understand the difference between them:
- The goal describes the purpose of the study – is it to forecast the environmental impacts of a project in the pre-feasibility or feasibility stage, or is it to understand current environmental impacts from an operational facility? Is it to optimise supply chain configuration from an environmental perspective, or is it to compare the environmental impacts of one equivalent product to another? These are all questions the goal of a LCA should address, as well as stating the ‘functional unit’ that everything should be referenced to (i.e., 1 kg lithium hydroxide monohydrate, or 1 kg anode grade synthetic graphite).
- The scope, that is outlining the key principles that the LCA follows, can differ considerably depending on the goal(s) of a particular study. The system boundary, a concept that outlines which unit processes (e.g., extraction, beneficiation, mineral processing, refining etc.) are part of a product system, and the level of detail of a LCA will depend on the subject and intended use of the study. In the mining and metals industries, the “cradle-to-gate” system boundary is most often used. This means environmental impacts will be assessed from raw material extraction, usually mining, up to a defined end gate, such as the transport of the final product to a set destination.
2. Life cycle inventory (LCI): The LCI phase is the second phase of a LCA. It is an inventory of all the necessary input and output data that is required to meet the goals of the defined study, with regard to the system being studied. To be more explicit, it is all of the energy and material inputs and outputs, as well as the associated emissions to air, water and land, that are linked with each unit process within the system boundary.
3. Life cycle impact assessment (LCIA): LCIA is the third phase of a LCA. The purpose of LCIA is to provide additional information to help assess a product system’s LCI results to better understand their environmental significance. In order to do this, the inputs and outputs of the LCI are multiplied by factors which convert them to the common unit of the impact category indicator. For example, the common unit of the GWP impact category is kg of CO2 equivalent per functional unit.
4. Interpretation: Last, but certainly not least, is the life cycle interpretation phase in which the results of a LCI and LCIA are summarised and discussed as a basis for conclusions, recommendations, and decision-making in accordance with the goal and scope definition. At Minviro, we use interpretation continually throughout our LCAs to ensure results are accurate and fair, and that the goals of the study have been met. This includes addressing vital aspects of LCA studies, such as completeness and appropriateness with respect to the defined goal and scope, data quality, sensitivity of the LCIA results to changes in the LCI, data uncertainty in both foreground and background datasets, and any limitations of the study. Through communicating the results of this interpretation in a transparent way, we believe our clients gain a deeper understanding of their own product systems and the ways in which LCA results can feed into long term strategic planning.
Business benefits of conducting an LCA
Conducting a LCA can provide companies with strategic commercial benefits, such as identifying areas for product or process improvement, improving environmental performance, complying with regulations, enhancing reputation, differentiating from competitors, attracting investors and customers, and accessing new markets. LCA should be a key part of a company's strategy and will demonstrate a commitment to sustainability and responsible practices.
Minviro’s LCA services
We provide expert consultancy and bespoke LCA software to quantify and understand environmental impact. We offer unparalleled accuracy, granularity in our data, and evidence-based solutions, all of which ensure you can identify and minimise risk with ease and continue to work with raw materials in a responsible way.
If you are interested in learning more about LCA as a decision-making tool, and how it may benefit you, contact us today.
Whatoff et al. SHIFTING THE LENS: The Growing Importance of Life Cycle Impact Data in the Battery Material Supply Chain. (2021).
ISO. ISO 14040:2006 - Environmental Management - Life Cycle Assessment - Principles and Framework. (2006).
International Standard Organization (ISO). ISO 14044: Environmental Management — Life Cycle Assessment — Requirements and Guidelines. (2006).
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