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Keywords:

  • climate change;
  • greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions;
  • industrial ecology;
  • life cycle assessment (LCA);
  • policy analysis;
  • uncertainty

Summary

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is generally described as a tool for environmental decision making. Results from attributional LCA (ALCA), the most commonly used LCA method, often are presented in a way that suggests that policy decisions based on these results will yield the quantitative benefits estimated by ALCA. For example, ALCAs of biofuels are routinely used to suggest that the implementation of one alternative (say, a biofuel) will cause an X% change in greenhouse gas emissions, compared with a baseline (typically gasoline). However, because of several simplifications inherent in ALCA, the method, in fact, is not predictive of real-world impacts on climate change, and hence the usual quantitative interpretation of ALCA results is not valid. A conceptually superior approach, consequential LCA (CLCA), avoids many of the limitations of ALCA, but because it is meant to model actual changes in the real world, CLCA results are scenario dependent and uncertain. These limitations mean that even the best practical CLCAs cannot produce definitive quantitative estimates of actual environmental outcomes. Both forms of LCA, however, can yield valuable insights about potential environmental effects, and CLCA can support robust decision making. By openly recognizing the limitations and understanding the appropriate uses of LCA as discussed here, practitioners and researchers can help policy makers implement policies that are less likely to have perverse effects and more likely to lead to effective environmental policies, including climate mitigation strategies.