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Some Ideas, Large and Small, for Boosting LCA in 2024

by Lise Laurin, Earthshift Global CEO

As 2024 begins, I’m thinking about changes that can help us move more quickly towards a healthy planet. Having worked daily for more than two decades in life cycle assessment (LCA), my perspective is naturally focused there; here are some grand ideas and some smaller and maybe easier ones that might have potential.

One smaller-and-maybe-easier one is to flip the script on responsibility for data collection. LCA tool builders have traditionally had to build connections with manufacturing software systems to generate single and multiple LCAs. Matching of the data in those systems to data in the LCA systems also usually falls to the LCA tool builders and, to a greater extent, the LCA practitioners.

What if we turned this around so the enterprise resource planning (ERP), material requirements planning (MRP), and other company-management systems took responsibility? Those systems could present data required for LCAs and greenhouse gas assessments through a specific portal using a specified communication protocol, allowing anyone to tap the data quickly and easily. With only two major LCI databases, the management systems would only have to match each manufacturing input to one or two different inventory items and they only have to do it once.

For the large companies that produce this software, creating such an interface would allow them to legitimately claim they are helping with sustainability. If enough of their customers requested the capability in a coordinated way, it might provide enough of an incentive to spur action — and save practitioners a lot of data-collection hours that would be better spent on analysis.

On a larger scale, I would love to see more grand assessments of planned and proposed changes. Often, our assessments consider what would happen if only one change was made. That has the advantage of simplicity, but much of the time the proposed change has the potential to change both markets and supply chains, which may affect other products and systems. While a broader look takes more resources, I think it is worth it.

One example: the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory just did some great work on the circularity of wind turbine blades, considering what would happen to the market for the raw materials as well as the broader transport, manufacturing and waste management changes. And the National Oil Heat Association created a tool to explore the changeover from oil-fired boilers to heating systems using bio-based fuels or heat pumps. The tool enabled assessment of GHG emission reductions at the city or state level. I would love to see this type of assessment expanded to other life cycle categories, because it gives us a better chance of catching rebound effects and other unexpected consequences.

Perhaps in the middle of solutions I’d like to see in 2024 is getting the North American Life Cycle Inventory Data Center off the ground. The purpose of this center, which has been discussed for a number of years, would be to make existing LCI data more usable, address North American data gaps, and manage critical review of submitted data. Like ecoinvent, the center would support multiple tool developers as well as other users of LCI data.

Following on the data center and potential integration into manufacturing and procurement systems is easier and better integration between organizations. I’m encouraged more and more LCAs are being completed but disappointed when I see our clients having to use generic data when I know their suppliers have completed LCAs of their own. There’s been discussion of applying blockchain to LCI data-sharing, but I don’t see it as a solution, especially with the high greenhouse gas impact of Blockchain technology.

Lastly, I’d like to see LCA tools to incorporate better analytical techniques. A number of these techniques, some supporting the inventory side and some the interpretation process, have been developed in academia, but few of have made it into the LCA tools we use. It might add a bit of cost, but it’s a relatively simple path toward faster LCAs with more usable results.

These are a few ideas that came to me as I started to dream about what is in store in 2024 — how about you? Let’s make a plan and see how many of our dreams can come true this year.