How to make policy-relevant life cycle assessments of future products? Lessons learned from nanomaterials
Paper in proceedings, 2013
Many new nanomaterials are currently being developed, and there is a great demand from policy-makers such as governments and agencies to understand the future environmental impact of nanomaterials. However, assessing the life cycle environmental impacts, e.g. in terms of emissions and energy use, related to these materials and products that contain them constitutes a great challenge, which makes it difficult to meet such needs from policy-makers. The challenge is much due to the many uncertainties that surround new nanomaterials at an early point of technological development, which makes environmental assessment methods such as life cycle assessment difficult to apply. These uncertainties include the future areas of application of the nanomaterial, future designs of products within those areas, and future production processes. When one or more of these uncertainties are present, we say that the life cycle or product chain is embryonic. This embryonic nature of nanomaterial life cycles differentiates them from the life cycles of more established products, such as cups and cucumbers. Assessing the environmental impacts of embryonic nanomaterial life cycles requires the assessor to understand the future, or rather some aspects of a number of possible futures. Hence, we need to make use of methods belonging to the field of future studies, including monitoring of trends in technology development (e.g. via patent analysis) and application areas as well as predicting and exploring by trend analysis, expert judgement, and sometimes even fantasizing. We illustrate the theoretical concept of embryonic life cycles with a number of examples of embryonic nanomaterial life cycles, including carbon nanotubes in composites, titanium dioxide nanoparticles in self-cleaning cement and graphene in electronic devices and composites. We show that a range of future study approaches may enrich, or even be essential to, policy-relevant life cycle assessments. We also show that environmental assessments such as life cycle assessment can be misused or used in questionable ways when applied to embryonic life cycles with the purpose of obtaining policy-relevant results.