, Volume 13, Issue 5, pp 374-388
Date: 14 May 2008

A survey of unresolved problems in life cycle assessment

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Abstract

Background, aims, and scope

Life cycle assessment (LCA) stands as the pre-eminent tool for estimating environmental effects caused by products and processes from ‘cradle to grave’ or ‘cradle to cradle.’ It exists in multiple forms, claims a growing list of practitioners and remains a focus of continuing research. Despite its popularity and codification by organizations such as the International Organization for Standardization and the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, life cycle assessment is a tool in need of improvement. Multiple authors have written about its individual problems, but a unified treatment of the subject is lacking. The following literature survey gathers and explains issues, problems and problematic decisions currently limiting LCA’s impact assessment and interpretation phases.

Main features

The review identifies 15 major problem areas and organizes them by the LCA phases in which each appears. This part of the review focuses on the latter eight problems. It is meant as a concise summary for practitioners interested in methodological limitations which might degrade the accuracy of their assessments. For new researchers, it provides an overview of pertinent problem areas toward which they might wish to direct their research efforts. Having identified and discussed LCA’s major problems, closing sections highlight the most critical problems and briefly propose research agendas meant to improve them.

Results and discussion

Multiple problems occur in each of LCA’s four phases and reduce the accuracy of this tool. Considering problem severity and the adequacy of current solutions, six of the 15 discussed problems are of paramount importance. In LCA’s latter two phases, spatial variation and local environmental uniqueness are critical problems requiring particular attention. Data availability and quality are identified as critical problems affecting all four phases.

Conclusions and recommendations

Observing that significant efforts by multiple researchers have not resulted in a single, agreed upon approach for the first three critical problems, development of LCA archetypes for functional unit definition, boundary selection and allocation is proposed. Further development of spatially explicit, dynamic modeling is recommended to ameliorate the problems of spatial variation and local environmental uniqueness. Finally, this paper echoes calls for peer-reviewed, standardized LCA inventory and impact databases, and it suggests the development of model bases. Both of these efforts would help alleviate persistent problems with data availability and quality.

Preamble This series of two papers reviews unresolved problems in life cycle assessment (LCA). Part 1 (Reap et al. 2008) focuses upon problems in the goal and scope definition and life cycle inventory analysis phases. Part 2 discusses problems in the life cycle impact assessment and interpretation phases. Having probed LCA’s main weaknesses, Part 2 identifies critical problems and suggests research agendas meant to ameliorate them. Additionally, the second paper in the series brings closure to the review with a unifying summary.
Part 1 ‘Goal & Scope and Inventory Analysis’ has been published in Int J Life Cycle Assess (2008) 13(4), DOI 10.1007/s11367-008-0008-x