Assessing freshwater use impacts in LCA: Part I—inventory modelling and characterisation factors for the main impact pathways
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- Milà i Canals, L., Chenoweth, J., Chapagain, A. et al. Int J Life Cycle Assess (2009) 14: 28. doi:10.1007/s11367-008-0030-z
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Background, aim and scope
Freshwater is a basic resource for humans; however, its link to human health is seldom related to lack of physical access to sufficient freshwater, but rather to poor distribution and access to safe water supplies. On the other hand, freshwater availability for aquatic ecosystems is often reduced due to competition with human uses, potentially leading to impacts on ecosystem quality. This paper summarises how this specific resource use can be dealt with in life cycle analysis (LCA).
The main quantifiable impact pathways linking freshwater use to the available supply are identified, leading to definition of the flows requiring quantification in the life cycle inventory (LCI).
The LCI needs to distinguish between and quantify evaporative and non-evaporative uses of ‘blue’ and ‘green’ water, along with land use changes leading to changes in the availability of freshwater. Suitable indicators are suggested for the two main impact pathways [namely freshwater ecosystem impact (FEI) and freshwater depletion (FD)], and operational characterisation factors are provided for a range of countries and situations. For FEI, indicators relating current freshwater use to the available freshwater resources (with and without specific consideration of water ecosystem requirements) are suggested. For FD, the parameters required for evaluation of the commonly used abiotic depletion potentials are explored.
An important value judgement when dealing with water use impacts is the omission or consideration of non-evaporative uses of water as impacting ecosystems. We suggest considering only evaporative uses as a default procedure, although more precautionary approaches (e.g. an ‘Egalitarian’ approach) may also include non-evaporative uses. Variation in seasonal river flows is not captured in the approach suggested for FEI, even though abstractions during droughts may have dramatic consequences for ecosystems; this has been considered beyond the scope of LCA.
The approach suggested here improves the representation of impacts associated with freshwater use in LCA. The information required by the approach is generally available to LCA practitioners
Recommendations and perspectives
The widespread use of the approach suggested here will require some development (and consensus) by LCI database developers. Linking the suggested midpoint indicators for FEI to a damage approach will require further analysis of the relationship between FEI indicators and ecosystem health.