QMark: The use of life-cycle analysis in environmental impact assessment

30th May 2019


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  • Environmental Impact Assessment

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Manjil Gurung

Kate von Pokorny explores the idea that life-cycle analysis can help fill in any gaps found in the environmental impact assessment process

The idea of merging assessment tools and frameworks together is one that causes controversy among consultants and scholars alike. Recently, the merging of life-cycle analysis (LCA) with environmental impact assessment (EIA) has been highlighted and explored by many EIA-focused research scholars, who have successfully demonstrated the benefits LCA can bring to the EIA process. Past research shows that LCA has been successfully combined with other tools such as environmental management systems, risk assessments and strategic environmental assessments – so why not combine it with EIA? What exactly is LCA? LCA is a non-mandatory system that evaluates a product's processes, activities, emissions and impacts throughout its lifespan – from extraction to production, consumption, disposal and recycling (Figure 1). There are currently three well-known approaches to LCA: conceptual LCA, detailed LCA and simplified LCA. The type of LCA applied is dependent on the type of project it is being used to assess. The most appropriate sectors that LCA can be applied to are agriculture, industrial production and transportation (rail and highways) – important sectors that could result in significant environmental effects if adverse impacts are not understood and appropriate mitigation measures identified.

One of the main weaknesses of the EIA process is that, while it can assess the positive and negative impacts that may arise from a project level development, it lacks the ability to address both global and regional environmental effects along each product's life-cycle – something that LCA achieves in detail. Researchers have assessed published EIAs and applied detailed and simplified LCA to the projects (Figure 2) where the outcomes have shown opportunities for further considerations on areas such as waste, climate and materials, which EIAs alone overlooked. For example, LCA would require a project-specific materials assessment at the early stages to identify the best materials to use for each project; this would be achieved by looking into the life-cycle of each of the individual materials that could be used prior to, during and after construction, as well as at how the material is made and transported, and its lifespan and disposal potential. This helps to identify the most economically, environmentally and socially acceptable option.

The main constraints when applying LCA to the process is that it is likely to be quite a costly process, particularly for the detailed and simplified LCA approaches. A data inventory would be required in order to understand the impacts each product would have. In order to use this at an EIA level, these data inventories would need to be constantly updated and standardised. In theory, this could work, but in reality, all organisations undertaking LCAs within their EIAs would have to continually contribute to this – unlikely, as the EIA process is already time consuming. Conceptual LCA appears to be the most easily applicable approach; this is often referred to as life-cycle thinking (LCT) and is more of a thought process than a prescriptive approach. It does not often come with any added costs and is unlikely to cause time constraints, but it will have the least benefit out of the three approaches.

In 2017, I asked a number of EIA consultants across the UK, from a range of different consultancies, whether they included any form of LCA within their EIAs – and also asked for their opinions on the feasibility of the inclusion of LCA into the EIA process. The majority of respondents hadn't heard of LCA, and none included detailed or simplified LCA. Two respondents claimed they used their own form of LCT within their EIAs. The majority of consultants also said they did not think the inclusion was currently feasible when applied to real life EIAs, as time constraints and costs are already an issue with EIA. The consensus was that unless a suitable 'one size fits all' approach is made – easily adaptable and not too costly or time consuming – then the negatives that come with this concept may outweigh the benefits. This is not to say that LCT shouldn't be included as good practice, and I believe that if increased awareness of LCT and how it can inform EIAs is encouraged, the quality of EIAs may improve.

Kate von Pokorny is a graduate environmental consultant at Arcadis Consulting (UK) Limited.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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