Rapid growth in life cycle assessment (LCA) methodological developments has generated a large body of work that may appear to lack direction. In this article we developed and applied a structured approach, inspired by the meta-analysis concept, to examine literature and identify research thrusts on how to further develop LCA. The procedure consists of four steps: (1) definition of the research question; (2) carrying out a literature review concerning more than 280 articles, selected from about 2,000 articles according to predefined criteria, which resulted in the identification of some 60 main methodological topics; (3) research gap analysis, in which the methodological topics identified in the previous step were compared with the research priorities identified through a users’ needs survey; and (4) interpretation of results, in which the results of both the previous steps were evaluated and organized into coherent research thrusts.
Overall the analysis delivered two main research thrusts: one devoted to increase the practicability of LCA, the other to increase model fidelity. The former is aimed at making knowledge available in an easily usable way, while the latter focuses on better describing the complexity of the systems analyzed and those interrelations that are really meaningful. Specific research topics were identified for each thrust, which suggests that sophistication and practicability can and should coexist in the same method.