The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment

, Volume 21, Issue 12, pp 1799–1815 | Cite as

Critical analysis of life cycle impact assessment methods addressing consequences of freshwater use on ecosystems and recommendations for future method development

  • Montserrat NúñezEmail author
  • Christian R. Bouchard
  • Cécile Bulle
  • Anne-Marie Boulay
  • Manuele Margni



Anthropic water uses can affect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems through various pathways. To address these impacts in life cycle assessment, an array of impact assessment methods can be applied. The currently well-known review of methods carried out by the UNEP/SETAC Life Cycle Initiative’s WULCA working group (Kounina et al. Int J Life Cycle Assess 18(3):707–721, 2013) recommends that practitioners “simultaneously apply all indicators to evaluate damage on ecosystem quality and to cautiously sum up the score into a single metric”. This call for caution is attributed to the fact that methods reviewed cover different ecosystem targets. Their characterisation factors and units also vary. However, the review lacks a detailed analysis of compatibilities and coherence between methods that identifies inconsistencies to be overcome to further method harmonisation. This is precisely the aim of this study.


Existing methods were analysed against a scheme. It consists of four issues (1) covered impact pathway, (2) structure of characterisation model and factor, (3) fate factor modelling, and (4) effect factor modelling, further specified based on ten criteria. Among these, one criterion evaluates the legitimacy of using steady-state fate factors to model pulse-type water uses based on the theorem presented by Heijungs (Environ Sci Pollut Res Int 2:217–224, 1995). New terminology is proposed for a proper description of the criteria. All of the criteria evaluate scientific and technical aspects. The analysis approach involves a qualitative description of each model.

Results and discussion

Important findings of the analysis include the following: (1) for several methods, the environmental intervention proposed and its connection to the impact assessment phase are debatable; (2) the location of the midpoint stressor (i.e. the indicator of change in the environment due to the environmental intervention) along the causality chain causes problems of compatibility among fate factors of different models; (3) it is appropriate to use the steady-state solution to find the new system condition after pulse-type water use. None of the models have justified this fundamental choice before. Recommendations for future method development respectively, involve the following: (1) avoid the use of inventory information in characterisation models and jointly develop inventory data and characterisation factors to ensure the applicability of impact assessment methods; (2) use the more environmentally relevant midpoint stressor (the one along the causality chain closer to ecosystem damage; and (3) justify the use of the steady-state solution for fate factor modelling.


This study identifies sources of inconsistency in the indicator structures analysed and provides recommendations that will foster harmonisation. The current mismatch between methods leads us to not recommend aggregating indicators into one single metric until a common framework underpins existing and future water use impact assessment methods for ecosystem quality.


Characterisation models Ecosystems Freshwater use Life cycle assessment Life cycle impact assessment 



We thank Jean-Daniel Savard for his work, which inspired the schematic representation of the characterisation model. His work constituted a first attempt at analysing several models that were re-analysed in the present study. We gratefully acknowledge the authors of the analysed methods for their valuable input. M. Núñez acknowledges ANR, the Languedoc-Roussillon Region, ONEMA and its industrial partners (BRL, SCP, SUEZ, VINADEIS) for the financial support of the Industrial Chair for Environmental and Social Sustainability Assessment “ELSA-PACT” (grant no. 13-CHIN-0005-01).

Supplementary material

11367_2016_1127_MOESM1_ESM.docx (504 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 504 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Montserrat Núñez
    • 1
    Email author
  • Christian R. Bouchard
    • 2
  • Cécile Bulle
    • 3
  • Anne-Marie Boulay
    • 4
  • Manuele Margni
    • 4
  1. 1.Irstea, UMR ITAPELSA Research Group & ELSA-PACT – Industrial Chair for Environmental and Social Sustainability AssessmentMontpellierFrance
  2. 2.Département de génie civil et de génie des eauxUniversité LavalQuébecCanada
  3. 3.CIRAIG, UQAMÉcole des sciences de la gestionMontrealCanada
  4. 4.Mathematical and Industrial Engineering DepartmentCIRAIG, Polytechnique MontrealMontréalCanada

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