Review of life-cycle based methods for absolute environmental sustainability assessment and their applications
Review article, 2020

In many regions and at the planetary scale, human pressures on the environment exceed levels that natural systems can sustain. These pressures are caused by networks of human activities, which often extend across countries and continents due to global trade. This has led to an increasing requirement for methods that enable absolute environmental sustainability assessment (AESA) of anthropogenic systems and which have a basis in life cycle assessment (LCA). Such methods enable the comparison of environmental impacts of products, companies, nations, etc, with an assigned share of environmental carrying capacity for various impact categories. This study is the first systematic review of LCA-based AESA methods and their applications. After developing a framework for LCA-based AESA methods, we identified 45 relevant studies through an initial survey, database searches and citation analysis. We characterized these studies according to their intended application, impact categories, basis of carrying capacity estimates, spatial differentiation of environmental model and principles for assigning carrying capacity. We then characterized all method applications and synthesized their results. Based on this assessment, we present recommendations to practitioners on the selection and use of existing LCA-based AESA methods, as well as ways to perform assessments and communicate results to decision-makers. Furthermore, we identify future research priorities intended to extend coverage of all components of the proposed method framework, improve modeling and increase the applicability of methods.

life cycle assessment

planetary boundaries

carrying capacity

case study review

absolute environmental sustainability

sharing principle

safe operating space


Anders Bjorn

École Polytechnique de Montréal

Concordia University

Chanjief Chandrakumar

Massey University

Anne-Marie Boulay

École Polytechnique de Montréal

Gabor Doka

Doka Life Cycle Assessments

Kai Fang

Zhejiang University

Natacha Gondran

Université de Lyon

Michael Zwicky Hauschild

Technical University of Denmark (DTU)

Annemarie Kerkhof


Henry King


Manuele Margni

École Polytechnique de Montréal

Sarah McLaren

Massey University

Carina Mueller

University of York

Mikolaj Owsianiak

Technical University of Denmark (DTU)

Gregory Peters

Chalmers, Technology Management and Economics, Environmental Systems Analysis

Sandra Roos

RISE Research Institutes of Sweden

Serenella Sala

European Commission (EC)

Gustav Sandin

IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute

Sarah Sim


Marcial Vargas-Gonzalez


Morten Ryberg

Technical University of Denmark (DTU)

Environmental Research Letters

17489318 (ISSN) 17489326 (eISSN)

Vol. 15 8 083001

Subject Categories

Other Environmental Engineering

Environmental Management

Environmental Analysis and Construction Information Technology



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