A UNEP/SETAC approach towards a life cycle sustainability assessment—our contribution to Rio+20
Journal article, 2012
To contribute to the upcoming United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in 2012 by introducing a life cycle sustainability assessment (LCSA) and showing how it can play a crucial role in moving towards sustainable consumption and production. The publication, titled Towards a Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment, and published by the UNEP/SETAC Life Cycle Initiative aims to show how three life cycle techniques-(environmental) LCA, S-LCA and LCC-can be combined as part of an over-arching LCSA.
The method was demonstrated by evaluating the characteristics of each phase for each life cycle technique. In defining the goal and scope of an LCSA, for example, different aspects should be taken into account to establish the aim of the study as well as the functional unit, system boundaries, impact category and allocation. Then, the data to be collected for the life cycle sustainability inventory can be either in a unit process or on an organisational level. They can also be quantitative or qualitative. Life cycle sustainability impact assessment should consider the relevance of the impacts as well as the perspective of stakeholders. The interpretation should not add up the results, but rather evaluate them jointly. In order to clarify the approach, a case study is presented to evaluate three types of marble according to the proposed method.
The authors have identified that while LCSA is feasible, following areas need more development: data production and acquisition, methodological development, discussion about LCSA criteria (e.g. cutoff rules), definitions and formats of communication and dissemination of LCSA results and the expansion of research and applications combining (environmental) LCA, LCC and S-LCA. The authors also indicate that it is necessary to develop more examples and cases to improve user capacity to analyse the larger picture and therefore address the three dimensions or pillars of sustainability in a systematic way. Software and database providers are called for in order to facilitate user-friendly and accessible tools to promote LCSAs.
The application demonstrated that, although methodological improvements are still needed, important steps towards an overarching sustainability assessment have been accomplished. LCSA is possible and should be pursued; however, more efforts should be made to improve the technique and facilitate the studies in order to contribute to a greener economy.