I recently had the honor of being invited to the Life Cycle Inventory Database Stakeholders Meeting at the Department of Energy. This group has been meeting for the past five years to develop the Life Cycle Inventory Database – the American version of some very effective tools that have been in place in Europe for many years now. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is managing this database and project.
Now, I will admit, I smugly admire my own intelligence at times, but this was a place where I was so intellectually out of my league, I had to leave the room a few times just to keep from hyperventilating! It’s good to be humbled sometimes.
Important Note: The rest of this post is highly technical. If you can’t get through it, feel free to just jump to the bottom paragraph. It’s okay; I won’t be offended!
What is life cycle assessment?
Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a scientific methodology to calculate the environmental performance of a product, material or building over its full life cycle. LCA evaluates all stages of a product’s life from the perspective that they are interdependent, meaning that one operation leads to the next. LCA enables the estimation of the cumulative environmental impacts resulting from all stages in the product life cycle, often including impacts not considered in more traditional analyses (e.g., raw material extraction, material transportation, ultimate product disposal, etc.). By including the impacts throughout the product life cycle, LCA provides a comprehensive view of the environmental aspects of the product or process, as well as a more accurate picture of the true environmental trade-offs in product and process selection. (This definition is from an article entitled “Life Cycle Assessment: Principles & Practice” by Scientific Applications Internationals Corporation of Reston, Virginia.)
For example, look at this terra cotta walrus from a famous Seattle building. Performing LCA just of this walrus would measure the energy and its impacts on the environment, including what it took to dig the clay from the ground that was used to make the terra cotta; the impacts of the manufacturing of the terra cotta; the packaging and transportation of the walrus to the building site; the energy and impacts it then took to affix it to the building; and the amount of energy and materials used over its life to maintain and restore it.
If that sounds really complicated just to measure this one walrus, imagine how complex it is to determine this information for an entire building. It boggles the mind.
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