A survey of unresolved problems in life cycle assessment

Part 2: impact assessment and interpretation
  • John Reap
  • Felipe Roman
  • Scott Duncan
  • Bert Bras


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.


Environmental assessment LCA LCA methodology LCIA Life cycle impact assessment Life cycle interpretation 



The presented material is based on work supported in part by NSF Grants DMI-0600243 and DMI-0522116. We also gratefully acknowledge support from Georgia Tech’s Manufacturing Research Center and Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering. John Reap and Scott Duncan gratefully acknowledge financial support provided by NSF grants DMI-0600243 and DMI-0522116, respectively. Felipe Roman acknowledges financial support given by Georgia Tech’s President’s Fellowship and the Goizueta Fellowship Program. All authors thank Valerie Thomas of Georgia Tech’s School of Industrial and Systems Engineering as well as IJLCA’s anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments and criticisms. Any opinions, finding, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US government and/or the authors’ parent institutions.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • John Reap
    • 1
  • Felipe Roman
    • 1
  • Scott Duncan
    • 1
  • Bert Bras
    • 1
  1. 1.Sustainable Design and Manufacturing Program, Systems Realization Laboratory, The George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical EngineeringGeorgia Institute of TechnologyAtlantaUSA

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