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Mineral resources in life cycle impact assessment—part I: a critical review of existing methods

Abstract

Purpose

The safeguard subject of the Area of Protection “natural Resources,” particularly regarding mineral resources, has long been debated. Consequently, a variety of life cycle impact assessment methods based on different concepts are available. The Life Cycle Initiative, hosted by the UN Environment, established an expert task force on “Mineral Resources” to review existing methods (this article) and provide guidance for application-dependent use of the methods and recommendations for further methodological development (Berger et al. in Int J Life Cycle Assess, 2020).

Methods

Starting in 2017, the task force developed a white paper, which served as its main input to a SETAC Pellston Workshop® in June 2018, in which a sub-group of the task force members developed recommendations for assessing impacts of mineral resource use in LCA. This article, based mainly on the white paper and pre-workshop discussions, presents a thorough review of 27 different life cycle impact assessment methods for mineral resource use in the “natural resources” area of protection. The methods are categorized according to their basic impact mechanisms, described and compared, and assessed against a comprehensive set of criteria.

Results and discussion

Four method categories have been identified and their underlying concepts are described based on existing literature: depletion methods, future efforts methods, thermodynamic accounting methods, and supply risk methods. While we consider depletion and future efforts methods more “traditional” life cycle impact assessment methods, thermodynamic accounting and supply risk methods are rather providing complementary information. Within each method category, differences between methods are discussed in detail, which allows for further sub-categorization and better understanding of what the methods actually assess.

Conclusions

We provide a thorough review of existing life cycle impact assessment methods addressing impacts of mineral resource use, covering a broad overview of basic impact mechanisms to a detailed discussion of method-specific modeling. This supports a better understanding of what the methods actually assess and highlights their strengths and limitations. Building on these insights, Berger et al. (Int J Life Cycle Assess, 2020) provide recommendations for application-dependent use of the methods, along with recommendations for further methodological development.

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Acknowledgments

We thank the other task force members for their participation in the process and their valuable inputs to discussions. Special thanks goes to Marisa Vieira (PRé Consultants) for providing her expertise as a method developer, to Andrea Thorenz (University of Augsburg) for supporting the supply risk discussions, and to Johannes Drielsma (Euromines) for valuable discussions and comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by the Life Cycle Initiative hosted by the UN Environment.

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Correspondence to Thomas Sonderegger.

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Sonderegger, T., Berger, M., Alvarenga, R. et al. Mineral resources in life cycle impact assessment—part I: a critical review of existing methods. Int J Life Cycle Assess (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-020-01736-6

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Keywords

  • Life cycle assessment
  • Life cycle impact assessment
  • Method review
  • Mineral resources
  • Raw materials
  • Resource depletion
  • Life Cycle Initiative
  • Task force mineral resources