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Role of Life Cycle Analysis in Environmental Management Report

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Updated: Oct 12th, 2021

Aims and Objectives

The objective of this report is to demonstrate the use of life cycle analysis through a specific example that introduces environmental LCA by explaining a specific method of conducting LCA. This method which we would discuss is the EIOLCA approach. Any decision or setting of environmental objectives is significant in the planning process because the objectives help determine how specific actions and policies should be developed for their achievement.

Environmental management is about the achievement of particular environmental goals for which we create various models to protect or improve environmental quality. In the report we would discuss environmental impacts, policy outcomes and critics on the basis of LCA limitations.

Overview of LCA

‘Life-Cycle Assessment’, ‘life cycle analysis’ or ‘eco-balance is a methodology that bridges the gap by interacting between a product and the impact the product causes on the environment. In fact, the product itself does not cause environmental damages embodied in industrial products like greenhouse warming and pollution, but the activity that the product performs affects the environment. LCA is applicable to all kinds of environmental problems and spans all disciplines that relate to them, the physical sciences, the social sciences and the normative sciences. It is an instrument for research that runs the whole cycle of the analysis of an environmental problem, of its causes in society and of its possible solutions (Nath et al, 1998, p. 22).

International organisations such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development have developed environmental guidelines and standards to promote environmental issues and practices in context with various environmental processes. Initiatives have been taken in this context such as cleaner production demonstration projects, education programs and the development of guidance documents on environmental management that may have reflected the importance attached to effective environmental management by government and business.

Both public and private sector organisations have responded to environmental pressures and opportunities by integrating environmental issues into their business practices through cleaner production, life cycle analysis, environmental impact assessment and public reporting.

Overview of EIOLCA (Economic Input-Output LCA)

The current LCA technique mostly deployed throughout the world as an environmental planning and decision-making model is the EIOLCA software. It is a generalised planning and decision-making model for all aspects of environmental protection having three pertinent features of environmental planning. The first is the multidisciplinary nature of planning which, for example, involves economic, social, ecological, land-use and technical considerations.

The second and third features require public involvement in the planning process, and the systematic approach of the process starting from the setting of objectives through to the implementation of remedial programmes, assessment of results and a permanent feedback mechanism (Nath et al, 1998, p. 77).

Wassily Leontief while developing this technique of LCA presumed that the complicated interactions within an economy can be approximated by proportionality relationships. Illustration can be given by the notion that if 90,000 tons of steel are required to make 90,000 cars, 180,000 tons will be required for 180,00,000 cars. Economic Input-output model depicts as the first order of Taylor series approximation to the actual, more complicated relationships. This model serves as a good approximation tool while analyzing small movements around observed data.

Data Sources for EIOLCA

The data sources include input-output matrix, economic impacts which are derived from that matrix, electricity usage in context with the average electricity prices, fuel and ore use, different energy and fertilizers usages, another pollutant, greenhouse and toxic emissions.

The Environmental Planning Process in context with the EIOLCA

Following are the considerations during the planning process:

  1. The environmental EIOLCA should focus on the minimisation of ecological threats vis-a-vis the input of the mixture of pollutants released.
  2. The model must not ignore the technological aspect of issues that relate to access of all countries to the best available technologies.
  3. EIOLCA as an economical oriented issue should focus on potential financial consequences before decisions are made as well as both financial aid programmes and modalities for transferring necessary technology should be decided upon.
  4. It should also focus on user-oriented issues to conduct information campaigns to alert all those likely to be affected by the environmental decision.

Environmental Plans and Policies

Institutional and organisational development is also critical for effective environmental planning and when it comes to the economic aspect, institutional development addresses legal and organisational constraints and limitations in human resources, while legal institutions underlie the fabric of development and environmental control (Carley and Christie, 1992). For example, property systems and land-use planning controls uphold a significant aspect in EIOLCA and are important in any rural or agricultural development or conservation initiative, yet very often programmes are initiated without an analysis of these fundamental systems. Legal systems include the necessary laws, regulations and environmental standards, and the government framework to implement them.

In some countries, environmental plans are made by a number of agencies. Such ‘multi planning agencies are clusters of related planning organisations which permit a wider input of specialisation as well as co-ordination of tasks. The aim of inter-organisational development must be in accordance with the new, formal and informal linkages among agencies of the government, and beyond government to business and the voluntary and community sectors.

EIOLCA is now an urgent need of most of the developing countries for institutional capacity building for sustainable development. In order to promote sustainable development, however, it is suggested that a critical element in strengthening institutional and legislative structures is the selection of environmental policy instruments (Buckley, 1991). There are three main types of instruments for putting environmental policies into effect namely, technological, regulatory and economic.

Since we are talking about the EIOLCA, training of professionals and strengthening of institutional structures are the two critical areas in which aid donors can assist the developing countries. The OECD for example coordinates and harmonises donor approaches to the formulation and implementation of sustainable development activities as key factors for improving the effectiveness, efficiency and quality of development cooperation.

Economic measures of the EIOLCA in context with sustainable development theory

EIOLCA utilizes economic measures such as GDP and GNP which also serve as the primary macroeconomic measure of a country’s economic performance. These economic measures are derived from the System of National Accounts (SNA) which gives a qualitative interpretation of the economic process at the national level, based on the monetary value of economic flows. For example, the GDP measures the total production of goods and services in a country in monetary terms. This qualitative interpretation represents a step from the traditional statistical description to a purely economic measurement based on monetary values.

Impact assessment

The translation of inventory results into environmental impacts is one of the most contentious areas of LCA and the crucial question that arises is, what do the results mean in terms of the environment? One of the major challenges in the development of LCA has been the lack of consensus on how to convert the inventory table into environmental impacts. At present there is still no consensus on how this should be done; however, there is some evaluation of inventories that involves two discrete but interlinked aspects namely, aggregation and interpretation. An inventory analysis leads to the quantification of a large number of input and output streams, involving 200 or more parameters but, in order to be useful to decision-makers, inventory information needs to be simplified through aggregation.

This means that a large number of parameters should be combined and condensed into a few but meaningful indicators. But the disadvantage of this is that information is lost through aggregation, not least because the weighting factors used are often subjective and arbitrary.

Aggregation according to the environmental effects

A sensible approach to aggregation would be to assign an appropriate weighting to an emission reflecting the environmental consequences caused by that emission. In this approach, the greenhouse gases would be aggregated, for example, by applying to each gas a weighting that reflects its ‘global warming potential’. The same exercise can be repeated for ozone-depleting substances, for gases that cause acid rain, and so on.

The problem of combining different effects is avoided in this approach, and it ensures that each component has a meaningful environmental currency. An early model based on this approach, developed at the Centre for Environmental Science (CML) the University of Leiden, The Netherlands, recommends a number of headings (impact scores) classified into three main environmental impacts, namely ‘resource depletion’, ‘pollution’ and ‘disturbances’ (Udo de Haes, 1992). The environmental problems considered are global warming, ozone depletion, toxic effects (human and ecological), acidification, formation of photo-oxidants; nitrification (aquatic and terrestrial), dispersion of heat, occupational health, and solid waste (hazardous and others).

Critics

Energy consumption data can be aggregated using the common currency of megajoules and combining all forms of energy may, however, obscure significant information, because energy may be consumed as the latent energy of raw materials or that used in processing or transportation. In addition, different energy sources (e.g. oil, nuclear, wind) have different environmental impacts. Solid waste can be aggregated by weight.

There are also models in which quantities of solid waste are expressed in terms of volume using conversion factors but the main criticism is that aggregation of different types of waste, regardless of their environmental characteristics (i.e. without weighting), is scientifically unjustified. Emissions from landfills (landfill gas) contribute to almost all environmental problems with which LCAs are concerned. The theoretical aspects of waste disposal are not yet sufficiently developed and their effects are underestimated. Also, major problems arise when attempts are made to aggregate emissions.

Critical volume method in which a theoretical ‘critical volume’ is calculated by dividing the amount of each pollutant by its maximum legally permissible concentration limit is also critiqued. These regulatory limits refer to maximum exposure concentrations in the workplace, or maximum emission levels, reflecting tolerable human toxicity levels. Emissions are then aggregated by summing up the critical volumes for air and water respectively. But this concept is criticised on several grounds that include the following concerns:

  1. While regulatory standards are set on a national basis, emissions may have global effects;
  2. Regulatory standards often reflect feasibility or cost rather than good science;
  3. Critical volumes cannot be calculated for non-regulated emissions
  4. it inappropriately combines different materials with different effects
  5. it takes into account only one aspect of emissions, namely human toxicity.

This last criticism is fundamental because it presumes that human health considerations are both predictive and protective of the environment (White et al., 1992). A weighting system, based on a single effect such as human toxicity, also ignores the fact that different compounds have different effects on both target organisms and ecosystems, and that a single chemical may also produce different effects.

Conclusion

Despite several critiques, the environmental impacts are been able to identify and assess through LCA. Industrial activities play a significant role in adopting various methods to use LCA and organisations are bound to look outside their traditional boundaries to assess the upstream and downstream impacts of their activities, instead of solely concentrating on the impacts associated with site operations, they are increasingly expected to take account of the environmental risks of producing the raw materials they use and of the use of their products by consumers.

So many efforts do not merely mean to rely upon every decision of LCA, what is required is the move towards enhancing the recyclability and reusability of products, providing safe disposal routes for spent chemicals and residues, and assisting organisations to minimise losses through better management and maintenance practices (Sullivan & Wyndham, 2001, p. 82).

References

Buckley, R. (1991) Perspectives in Environmental Management, Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Carley, M. and Christie, I. (1992) Managing Sustainable Development, London: Earthscan Publications Ltd.

Nath B., Compton P., Hens L., & Devuyst D., (1998) Environmental Management in Practice,Volu me 1: Instruments for Environmental Management. Volume: 1: Routledge: New York.

Sullivan Rory & Wyndham Hugh, (2001) Effective Environmental Management: Principles and Case Studies: Allen & Unwin: St. Leonards, N.S.W.

Udo de Haes, H.A. (1992) ‘General framework for environmental life-cycle assessment of Products’, in Life-Cycle Assessment, Report of the SETAC Workshop in Leiden.

White P., Hindle, P. and Drager, K. (1992) ‘Life-cycle analysis of packaging’, in G. Levy (ed.) Packaging and the Environment, London, UK: Blackie, pp. 118-146.

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