Life-LCA: assessing the environmental impacts of a human being—challenges and perspectives

Abstract

Purpose

The life-cycle assessment (LCA) method is typically applied to products, but the potential and demand for extending its use also to other applications are high. In this respect, this paper proposes an LCA concept to be used for the assessment of human beings as new study objects, namely Life-LCA. Key challenges of such a new approach and potential solutions for those are identified and discussed.

Methods

The Life-LCA concept was developed based on a detailed desktop research. Several Life-LCA-specific challenges were identified and categorized under three research questions. One of these questions focusses on the conceptual design of a Life-LCA method while the others are addressing operational issues, which are the definition of the new study system and the practical assessment of complex human consumption behaviors. Methodological solutions are proposed, e.g., based on suggestions provided in the existing methods product LCA and organizational LCA (O-LCA).

Results and discussion

Conceptual challenges arise from the general diversity, complexity, and temporal development of human lives and consumption behaviors. We introduce Life-LCA as a two-dimensional method that covers both, the new human life cycle (dimension 1) and the life cycle of the consumed products (dimension 2). Furthermore, the two types Individual Life-LCA and Lifestyle-LCA are differentiated. Especially, the definition of a general system boundary for Life-LCA and data collection and evaluation face many operational challenges. For example, the social behavior of human beings is a new factor to be considered which causes new allocation problems in LCA. Moreover, the high demand for aggregated LCA data requires specific rules for data collection and evaluation as well as a new bottom-up product clustering scheme.

Conclusions

Life-LCA, either used for the assessment of individual lives or lifestyles, has the potential to raise environmental awareness of people by making their specific environmental impacts comprehensively measurable and thus, tangible. However, many challenges need to be solved in future interdisciplinary research to develop a robust and applicable method. This paper conceptualizes such an approach and proposes solutions that can serve as a framework for ongoing method development.

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Notes

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    Please note, that for a complete Life-LCA also service clustering will be needed. However, for now, we focus on direct product consumption, which includes product consumption due to services (e.g. meals ordered in restaurants, hotel stays).

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Correspondence to Annekatrin Lehmann.

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Goermer, M., Lehmann, A. & Finkbeiner, M. Life-LCA: assessing the environmental impacts of a human being—challenges and perspectives. Int J Life Cycle Assess 25, 141–156 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-019-01645-3

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Keywords

  • Bottom-up product clustering
  • Environmental awareness
  • Life cycle assessment (LCA)
  • Personal environmental footprint
  • Sustainable consumption
  • Sustainable lifestyles