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Geopolitical-related supply risk assessment as a complement to environmental impact assessment: the case of electric vehicles

Abstract

Purpose

Introducing a geopolitical-related supply risk (GeoPolRisk) into the life cycle sustainability assessment (LCSA) framework adds a criticality aspect to the current life cycle assessment (LCA) framework to more meaningfully address direct impacts on Natural Resource AoP. The weakness of resource indicators in LCA has been the topic of discussion within the life cycle community for some time. This paper presents a case study on how to proceed towards the integration of resource criticality assessment into LCA under the LCSA. The paper aims at highlighting the significance of introducing the GeoPolRisk indicator to complement and extend the established environmental LCA impact categories.

Methods

A newly developed GeoPolRisk indicator proposed by Gemechu et al., J Ind Ecol (2015) was applied to metals used in the life cycle of an electric vehicle, and the results are compared with an attributional LCA of the same resources. The inventory data is based on the publication by Hawkins et al., J Ind Ecol 17:53–64 (2013), which provides a current, transparent, and detailed life cycle inventory data of a European representative first-generation battery small electric vehicle.

Results and discussion

From the 14 investigated metals, copper, aluminum, and steel are the most dominant elements that pose high environmental impacts. On the other hand, magnesium and neodymium show relatively higher supply risk when geopolitical elements are considered. While, the environmental indicator results all tend to point the same hotspots which arise from the substantial use of resources in the electric vehicle’s life cycle, the GeoPolRisk highlights that there are important elements present in very small amounts but crucial to the overall LCSA. It provides a complementary sustainability dimension that can be added to conventional LCA as an important extension within LCSA.

Conclusions

Resource challenges in a short-term time perspective can be better addressed by including social and geopolitical factors in addition to the conventional indicators which are based on their geological availability. This is more significant for modern technologies such as electronic devices in which critical resources contribute to important components. The case study advances the use of the GeoPolRisk assessment method but does still face certain limitations that need further elaboration; however, directions for future research are promising.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Christoph Helbig for helping to develop the Geopolitical Supply Risk method. The authors also acknowledge the financial support of the Region of Aquitaine for the Chair on Life Cycle Assessment (CyVi) at the University of Bordeaux to carry out this work.

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Correspondence to Guido Sonnemann.

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Responsible editor: Alexandra Pehlken

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Gemechu, E.D., Sonnemann, G. & Young, S.B. Geopolitical-related supply risk assessment as a complement to environmental impact assessment: the case of electric vehicles. Int J Life Cycle Assess 22, 31–39 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-015-0917-4

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-015-0917-4

Keywords

  • Criticality assessment
  • Electric vehicle
  • Environmental impacts
  • Geopolitical-related supply risk
  • Life cycle assessment
  • Resources