What is a Life Cycle Assessment?
by: Gary Yoder and Jaskaran Sidhu | February 22, 2022
Solutions considered essential to decarbonization reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, yet rarely come without other environmental impacts. For example, while vehicle electrification will increase battery production, the mining of lithium has a substantial environmental impact. So how do we evaluate whether each trade-off on our path to net-zero is worth it? A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which offers a framework for quantifying the potential environmental impacts of a product from cradle–to–grave (i.e., from growth/extraction of raw material inputs all the way through a product’s disposal), allows us to make that determination.
Benefits of LCAs?
Unlike GHG footprints or other Environmental, Social, & Governances (ESG) metrics that typically quantify enterprise-level impacts and show year-to-year progress, LCAs often focus on the potential environmental impact at a specific product or a facility level. Such information can be important to customers, suppliers, employees, investors, and regulatory entities.
ClimeCo has performed a variety of LCA projects across multiple industries and scopes. The goals of an LCA can vary; the following two projects provide examples of two different approaches to LCAs that ClimeCo has recently completed for our clients.
LCA Example #1
Confidential Industrial Manufacturer: Benefits of Practice Change vs. Historical Performance at a Facility
ClimeCo carried out a cradle-to-grave carbon intensity (CI) LCA for four products made at an industrial facility.
The Objective: Communicate Carbon Capture Benefit
One of the many applications of an LCA is its ability to demonstrate the environmental benefits achieved by adopting different operational practices. A detailed analysis of GHG emitted through the product lifecycles showed the reduction in CIs achieved by capturing previously vented process CO2 for sequestration. These CIs, and their recent reductions, will be used in customer communications and marketing efforts, differentiating the environmental “value” of the products from those offered by competitors.
Another Use: Evaluate Decarbonization Options
LCAs can be a reliable methodology for demonstrating GHG benefits achieved through existing decarbonization actions – as was the case for the scenario above – and for evaluating various potential reduction measures prior to their implementation. When used in combination with tools like Marginal Abatement Cost Curves (MACC), LCAs can help assess reduction pathways along with their associated monetary cost.
Financial Incentive Opportunities
Identifying GHG performance improvement opportunities can open doors to participate in current and upcoming federal- and state-level programs that come with significant financial incentives. These include California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard, Canada’s Clean Fuel Standard, or the IRS carbon sequestration tax credit (45Q), each requiring full product LCAs.
LCA Example #2
J-Band® – Benefits of Product vs. Alternatives
ClimeCo collaborated with Asphalt Materials, Inc. (AMI) to complete an LCA-based sustainability assessment of J-Band®, AMI’s void reducing asphalt membrane (VRAM) product.
AMI designed J-Band to reduce road maintenance and extend the lifetime of asphalt pavement roads by strengthening the longitudinal (centerline) joint, traditionally a problematic site for road deterioration. The deterioration results from the intrusion of air and water due to inherently lower asphalt mixture density at the joint. Over time, the joint naturally becomes the weak link in the entire road surface, requiring periodic repairs before complete road replacement. To combat this, J-Band® is a polymer-modified asphalt product applied to the prepared surface prior to applying the new hot-mix asphalt (HMA). When the HMA pavement lifts are applied, heat from the hot-mix drives J-Band® into the available voids, sealing the joint area from below. Due to established jurisdictional practices and specification requirements, J-Band® is used in a smaller percentage of asphalt paving projects in the U.S., with traditional solutions, such as joint adhesive, pave wide trim back (PWTB), and infrared (IR) heaters, being more common.
The Product’s Competitive Edge: Performance and Cost
AMI has demonstrated that J-Band® creates a better joint compared to the alternatives, eliminating the need for frequent, significant joint repair, and prolonging the life of the road by at least three additional years. Based on this performance, AMI has shown that J-Band® has a lower lifetime cost, with its upfront costs surpassed by reduced asphalt materials, fuel, and labor costs.
A Sustainability Edge, too?
Is the same true for J-Band’s lifetime environmental and social impacts? The product requires energy and material inputs to manufacture and apply – are these impacts surpassed by the benefits of reduced maintenance and extended road lifetime? ClimeCo completed a curtailed-boundary comparative LCA, evaluating J-Band against three traditional longitudinal joint solution alternatives to answer this question. The comparative LCA approach meant impacts common to all alternatives could be excluded from quantification, such as including the production of HMA, transporting the asphalt to the job site, and energy use of the paving equipment. However, for all the life cycle phases where differences between the alternatives were established, the impacts were calculated. The following table shows the life cycle stages included in the analysis.
ClimeCo quantified GHGs and criteria air pollutants (AQ) impacts across raw materials extraction, materials manufacturing, product transport, joint solution application, and road maintenance. The developed calculator tool clearly documents assumptions and data sources. It is customizable for key project details, such as project length, distance to the project site, and distance to perform maintenance.
Under the assumed baseline conditions, J-Band demonstrated better sustainability performance and reduced emissions during construction and maintenance phases compared to the longitudinal joint solution alternatives. For more information on this project scope and results, please see the following PowerPoint presentation.
Using LCAs for a More Sustainable Future
As these two project examples show, LCAs can be targeted to answer specific questions and meet specific needs. However, because each LCA is context-specific and fine-tuned to its application, one LCA cannot be compared to another. To manage this limitation, ClimeCo’s standard practice is to use conservative assumptions and to be transparent with methodologies, ensuring trustworthy, well-documented LCA results that align with reality.
Whether you are looking to enhance a product or process, develop sustainability marketing claims, or meet regulatory or reporting requirements, ClimeCo has the expertise in applying LCAs to support informed decision-making across these areas.
About the Authors
Gary Yoder is a Vice President at ClimeCo, providing environmental compliance services to many clients. He specializes in the complexities of air quality compliance but also supports ClimeCo’s sustainability projects and initiatives. Gary holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Geography/Pre-Meteorology from Ohio University and a Master of Science degree in Meteorology from North Carolina State University.
Jaskaran Sidhu is an Analyst on ClimeCo’s Sustainability, Policy, and Advisory team based in Toronto. Jaskaran’s work focuses on life cycle analysis and carbon impact quantification for ClimeCo’s corporate clients. Jaskaran holds a Master of Engineering in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering from the University of Toronto and a Bachelor of Engineering in Mechanical Engineering from Panjab University.