, Volume 9, Issue 6, pp 394-404

The LCIA midpoint-damage framework of the UNEP/SETAC life cycle initiative

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Abstract

Background, Aims and Scope

Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA) methods can be grouped into two families: classical methods determining impact category indicators at an intermediate position of the impact pathways (e.g. ozone depletion potentials) and damage-oriented methods aiming at more easily interpretable results in the form of damage indicators at the level of the ultimate societal concern (e.g. human health damage). The Life Cycle Initiative, a joint project between UNEP1 and SETAC2, proposes a comprehensive LCA framework to combine these families of methods. The new framework takes a world-wide perspective, so that LCA will progress towards a tool meeting the needs of both developing and developed countries. By a more precise and broadly agreed description of main framework elements, the Life Cycle Initiative expects to provide a common basis for the further development of mutually consistent impact assessment methods.

Main Features

Inputs to the LCIA midpoint-damage framework are results of Life Cycle Inventory analyses (LCI). Impact pathways connect the LCI results to the midpoint impact categories with the corresponding indicators, as well as to the damage categories at the level of damages to human health, natural environment, natural resources and man-made environment, via damage indicators. Mid-point impact categories simplify the quantification of these impact pathways where various types of emissions or extractions can be aggregated due to their comparable impact mechanisms. Depending on the available scientific information, impact pathways may be further described up to the level of damage categories by quantitative models, observed pathways or merely by qualitative statements. In the latter case, quantitative modelling may stop at mid-point. A given type of emission may exert damaging effects on multiple damage categories, so that a corresponding number of impact pathways is required. Correspondingly, a given damage category may be affected jointly by various types of emissions or extractions. It is therefore an important task of the Life Cycle Initiative to carefully select damage indicators. The content of the midpoint and of the damage categories is clearly defined, and proposals are made on how to express the extent of environmental damage by suitable indicator quantities.

Conclusions and Outlook

The present framework will offer the practitioner the choice to use either midpoint or damage indicators, depending on modelling uncertainty and increase in results interpretability. Due to the collaboration of acknowledged specialists in environmental processes and LCIA around the globe, it is expected that - after a few years of effort - the task forces of the Life Cycle Initiative will provide consistent and operational sets of methods and factors for LCIA in the future.