Clarifying the role of life cycle assessment in technical research and development projects: Recommendations for project planning.
Conference contribution, 2012
In technical Research and Development (R&D) projects, such as those funded within the European 7th Framework Programme, there is often a requirement to conduct an environmental Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of the technology under development. No requirements or recommendations are provided on the role of LCA within different types of projects, consequently the role of LCA tends to be unclear and arbitrary, and LCA work may not be adequately designed for the needs of the project.
There is much literature on LCA and its use in R&D, often on case studies, on development of assessment methods or on possibilities and limitations of LCA in the R&D context. There is also more general research on environmental consideration in R&D, often with a focus on intra-organisational projects. However, there is a need to explore the role of LCA in inter-organisational technical R&D projects, in order to improve project planning and enable projects to make use of the full potential of LCA.
In this study, we draw on experiences from LCA work in such projects in order to identify project characteristics which are decisive for what the role of the LCA can be. Four specific projects are used to illustrate how these characteristics have practical consequences for project planning, before or early in the project. The purpose is to help project planners and LCA practitioners to characterise their project and, consequently, plan the project in a more deliberate way for efficient use of LCA.
The following key project characteristics were identified:
Potential influence on environmental performance: whether the technology under development is a major or minor contributor to the environmental impact of a product’s life cycle.
Flexibility of development process: to what extent the direction of the project is fixed, which may set limits to the opportunities the LCA has for influencing the project.
LCA dependency on project progress: if key variables in the LCA depend on decisions taken or results obtained within the project.
Appropriate audience of LCA results: stakeholders within or external to the project that the LCA should be directed towards.
Potential influence on environmental performance, flexibility of development process and LCA dependency on project progress, are crucial for whether there is a need for an early screening LCA of the proposed development routes. For example, this could depend on whether life cycle impacts mainly depend on the production processes or the functional properties of the technology under development. Furthermore, flexibility of development process, LCA dependency on project progress and appropriate audience of the LCA results are central for scheduling the time plan for project deliverables and for deciding how and to whom the LCA results are to be communicated. Also, all four characteristics influence to what degree the LCA should be integrated with other parts of the project: whether LCA is to influence technology development, or whether it is sufficient with a stand-alone LCA that is delivered at the end of the project.
The LCA practitioner and any project partner with pre-knowledge of the technology’s environmental impact should be engaged in evaluating the above listed key characteristics. In this way, the role of LCA can be clarified, positively contributing to a more efficient use of LCA in the project. This can also help in creating realistic expectations and, thereby, limit disappointment and stress within the project.