by Roman Jaques, BRANZ Environmental Scientist
to grave
– life cycle assessment
he bi-annual workshop on life
cycle assessment for APEC
countries was held last November
at Tsukuba, a satellite city of Tokyo.
The workshop ‘Gateway to life cycle
impact assessment for APEC member
economies’ was hosted by a Japanese
research group, Research Center for Life
Cycle Assessment, at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and
Technology (AIST). Associated with the
workshop were two other LCA-related
events – the Fifth International Conference on EcoBalance (sponsored by The
Society of Non-Traditional Technology)
and the International Workshop on
Ecomaterials. In all, over 500 delegates
attended the three events – reflecting
the large amount of international interest in the subject.
Just what is life cycle assessment?
You may remember from a previous
BUILD article (November/December
1998, pages 38–39) that life cycle
assessment (LCA) was defined as ‘the
formalised process that examines all
the environmental impacts caused by a
product’s manufacture, over its entire
life’. An LCA typically examines all the
resource and pollutant flows into and
out of a product, from its creation to its
demise. Thus, all energy and material
inputs, as well as all solid, liquid and
airborne emissions from a product’s
manufacture, use and disposal are
accounted for. A typical cycle for an
industrial system is shown in Figure 1.
Four processes are typically undertaken when doing an LCA, all inter-related components:
1. Scoping – establishing goals and
Roman Jaques reports back on a workshop he was invited to attend on
life cycle assessment at Tsukuba, a satellite city of Tokyo. The workshop
was hosted by a Japanese research group – Research Center for Life
Cycle Assessment.
raw material extraction
What goes
in (inputs):
(resources) enregy,
manufacturing, production
distribution, transportation
What comes out
air and water, emissions, wastes
operations and maintenance
recycle and waste management
Figure 1: Diagram of an LCA for a typical industrial system.
2. Inventory – quantifying inputs
and outputs over the life cycle of a
product, using a data-base
3. Impact assessment – assessing
the effects of the environmental
burdens identified in the inventory
4. Improvement analysis – investigating the various ways of mitigating
the environmental impacts associated with the inputs and outputs.
The further down the list you get,
the more difficult and uncertain the
results. So far, the first two – scoping
and inventory – have boundaries that
are consensus-based, while there is
still much work to be done refining the
latter two.
What is an LCA used for?
There are many ways an LCA can be
used but most recently it is becoming
extremely attractive to organisations
who are looking for ways of validating
greenhouse gas emissions and then
marketing credits under the Kyoto
Protocol. It can also be used at the
design stage to see how to make a more
environmentally friendly product or as
a benchmarking tool both within and
across industries.
Workshop aim
The aim of the workshop was to discuss
and prioritise environmental issues
for different APEC economies, and to
examine how the latest impact assessment models relate to these priorities.
For example, in what ways were the
different environmental impacts – such
as depletion of the ozone layer, land
use, soil quality and human toxicology
– modelled, measured and addressed?
There was also much discussion
on what the key characteristics of a
good LCA should be. At the core of
this is the question ‘how can an LCA
best serve the needs of people and the
environment in the future?’ It was
suggested that in essence, an LCA tool
should be ‘as simple as possible and as
complex as required’, given that a tool’s
complexity doesn’t guarantee more
accuracy in the overall assessment.
Also, although the theory and social
and environmental science behind the
tool can be very complex, to ensure its
use its application and interpretation
should be very simple.
New issues
The other two LCA events held concurrently focused on new methodological
issues of LCA, such as statistical analysis, social aspects and new environmental impact categories to consider.
Sensitivity analysis in inventory and
valuation process of impact assessment will continue to be discussed in
more depth. In addition, reports on
various users and uses of LCA as a
practical tool were given, for example,
as a decision support tool, for resource
allocation, environmental auditing,
quality improvement, and comparison
of alternative processes.
Key messages for delegates
Delegates took home several messages
from the proceedings:
• there needs to be more sharing of
LCA experiences and data, both
within industry and between nations developing tools
• there needs to be a build-up of local
capacity in countries, in terms of
training and education in the uses
of these types of tools
• users of LCA tools are now becoming more interested in ‘other’
environmental impact categories,
in addition to the usual energy and
CO2 emissions
• the recognition that the global driving force of LCA tools is from waste
management and building material
• the speed of progress within the
field of LCA is making it difficult to
keep up.
Overall, there was agreement that
there were many new exiting approaches to LCA internationally, with some
very promising developments. The gap
between LCA theory and its practical
application is rapidly reducing as more
tools are used and refined. The title
for the Fifth International Conference
on EcoBalance conference – ‘practical
tools and thoughtful principles for
sustainability’ – applied equally well to
the LCA workshop.
Roman Jaques would like to thank
AIST for the opportunity to participate
in the AIST–APEC workshop.