Downstream vs upstream emissions: what you need to know
Downstream vs upstream emissions - what do these terms mean and why are they important in the context of carbon accounting?
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Life Cycle Analysis, often shortened to LCA, is a key tool when it comes to unpacking the environmental impact of any product or service.
Every product or service has its own life cycle. From its initial design phase to production and sale, all the way to the moment it's either thrown away or recycled. This is what we call the product's life cycle. To get a real handle on your company's carbon footprint, you'll want to take a deep dive into LCAs for your various products and services.
👉 In this article we’ll explore what a life cycle analysis (LCA) is, what it involves, and the benefits of carrying out an LCA.
A life cycle analysis is an evaluation method used to quantify the environmental impacts of a product or service. This approach not only aids in identifying the eco-friendly potential within design processes (eco-design) but also enables a comparison between similar products or services. The goal? To pinpoint the most efficient and least environmentally detrimental option.
LCAs shed light on sources of pollution or waste and help companies devise innovative solutions to enhance the environmental performance of products or services. They are an essential part of creating a comprehensive sustainability roadmap.
Recognized and standardized at a global level through the International Organization for Standardization (ISO 14040 series), the LCA method provides an all-encompassing approach to assessing environmental impacts. It's about looking at the big picture and understanding how every stage of your product's lifecycle can affect the environment.
Who can benefit from LCA?
Should your company consider LCA? Absolutely! If your company is looking to:
LCAs offer an invaluable perspective on sustainability and can help steer your company toward a greener future. With a comprehensive understanding of your environmental impact, you'll be better equipped to make strategic decisions, improve your products, and contribute to a more sustainable world.
By applying the methodology of Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), a comprehensive inventory is developed detailing every process associated with the creation and implementation of a product or service. This methodology accounts for the consumption of natural resources and the corresponding external factors, encapsulating a "cradle-to-grave" perspective.
The product's creation phase typically involves heavy consumption of energy and resources. This includes:
Environmental impacts are assessed on several parameters including:
Post-purchase, the product's usage also influences the environment. While there may be fewer stages involved, substantial resources such as fuel, energy, and water may be expended during:
The journey of a product doesn't stop at its usage phase in an LCA. How the product's end-of-life is managed is crucial. Questions like, "What happens when the product is no longer usable? Is it simply discarded or recycled?" become important considerations.
This final phase can be complex, and poor handling of this stage can lead to environmental harm. Unregulated dumping or unchecked incineration can lead to environmental repercussions including air, soil, and water pollution and harmful emissions.
The end-of-life stages include:
👉 By taking each of these phases into account, an LCA provides a holistic view of a product or service's environmental footprint from creation to disposal.
It's important to note that Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) heavily relies on certain criteria to examine both input and output flows.
A flow in this context represents everything involved in the creation of a product or service, alongside all the ensuing repercussions in the form of pollution or other adverse externalities.
Collecting accurate data on these flows is an indispensable part of an LCA. These flows are quantified at every stage of the product or service life cycle and can manifest in various forms. For instance, input flows might encompass resources like water, oil, or gas. Conversely, output flows typically refer to byproducts like greenhouse gas emissions or waste.
By measuring these flows, we can derive key indicators of potential environmental impacts, offering us a comprehensive understanding of the product or service's environmental footprint.
To conduct a thorough product assessment, there's a wide range of LCA software solutions at your disposal. These tools adeptly calculate potential environmental impacts, offering a transparent view of the environmental footprint by utilizing detailed inventory data.
Nonetheless, it's vital to ensure that the software you select has access to databases relevant to your specific business activities. These LCA software tools utilize these databases to break down a product's flows into two primary categories: its components and the energy required for its production.
Such software solutions not only simplify the LCA process but also improve its precision. If, however, you decide not to use software, a manual method can still be undertaken. This approach requires access to the right data and a thorough understanding of how to apply it.
💡 As well as helping organizations with their carbon footprint assessment, platforms like Greenly can also help companies to understand the full impact of their product or service offering with a life cycle analysis.
👉 To learn more about carbon accounting, why not check out our article that covers everything you need to know?
👉 Or to find out how to conduct a lifecycle assessment head over to the Greenly website.
LCA consists of four major interdependent stages.
The first and most important step in conducting a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is to clearly outline its objectives. Why are you conducting an LCA? Is it to compare different products with the intention of adopting an eco-design approach? Or perhaps it's to help with decision-making in procurement, to improve your environmental impact reporting, or to provide clearer information to your customers about the environmental footprint of your products.
Whatever your reason, it's important to define your objectives at the outset. This involves determining:
👉 A note on the functional unit. A functional unit is a unit of measurement that enables final comparisons to be made. It is used to evaluate the service provided by the product throughout its lifecycle. For example, for an LCA comparing different methods of providing heat (like electric heating, gas heating, or a heat pump), the functional unit could be 'the amount of heat provided to keep a house at 21 degrees Celsius for a year'.
What’s most important is that the functional unit must be clearly defined and measurable. It should also reflect the product's purpose or function to ensure a fair and meaningful comparison.
When determining the functional unit, it's important to account for the following three criteria.
By carefully defining these factors, you will create a well-focused LCA that provides meaningful and actionable insights into your product's environmental footprint, aligning with your overall sustainability strategy.
Once you've set your goals and identified what to measure, it's time to compile a Life Cycle Inventory (LCI). This helps quantify the energy and material inputs, as well as emission outputs at each stage of the product's life cycle - ie. It's a record of all the energy and materials that go into a product and all the emissions that come out at each stage of its life.
The LCI gathers two kinds of data:
This data is typically sourced from a combination of activity-based factors, emission factors, and various databases. In cases where specific data isn't available, the inventory can be supplemented with generic (or secondary) data derived from calculations. Assembling this robust inventory is key to creating a detailed picture of the product's environmental impact across its entire life cycle.
❗️ Many mistakes can be made at this stage, which is why it is important to have access to product analysis software or to call in the help of an expert. This allows for certain control procedures can be put in place to ensure a more reliable life cycle analysis.
The next step involves assessing potential impacts and detrimental effects. This is based on the material and energy flows previously identified, and the selected calculation and characterization indicators.
The identified flows are then broken down into two categories: midpoints and endpoints.
Midpoints serve as potential impact indicators in a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). They signify the most critical impacts, examining the major sources of pollution with the highest environmental consequence. Here, the consumption or emission of harmful substances is converted into a uniform unit.
These risks could encompass aspects such as human health or ecosystem disruption. For example, one way we might measure a product's impact is by looking at how much it contributes to soil acidification, which we measure in equivalents of sulfur dioxide (SO2) - a major cause of acid rain.
Endpoints are about the actual damage that might be caused by the product. These look at the final effect of using or emitting certain substances.
For instance, in the case of soil acidification, the endpoint would be the loss of plant and animal species over a certain area of land. We would measure this impact using a metric called the Potentially Disappeared Fraction of Species (PDF), which estimates the number of species that could disappear due to environmental changes.
The last stage involves interpreting the results of the whole process to identify opportunities for implementing less environmentally damaging alternatives.
👉 Remember, this entire process is iterative, meaning it needs regular checks and validations to ensure you're on track toward your goals. Be prepared to adjust your plan, as some data might not be readily available and the scope of study defined at the outset might need modification.
LCA serves as an effective tool for pinpointing a company's most environmentally harmful processes. It offers valuable insights that aid in formulating a robust environmental strategy to find sustainable solutions.
Besides enhancing your carbon footprint assessment at any given time, an LCA propels your company towards adopting a process of continuous improvement, allowing for ongoing enhancements in environmental performance.
By recognizing the strengths and environmental challenges of your product or service, you can find solutions that steer you towards eco-design. An LCA serves as a powerful tool in decision-making, supporting environmentally friendly policies, and facilitating the path to eco-certification.
Adopting changes such as altering packaging materials, refining raw material extraction processes, enhancing transport methods, or improving end-of-life recycling strategies underscore your company's commitment to environmental stewardship.
Increasingly, consumers are factoring in environmental impacts when deciding between two comparable products or services. An LCA can help to identify potential environmental harm caused by a company's products or services, allowing the company to take steps to avoid them in favor of more resource-conserving alternatives.
👉 An LCA creates a deeper understanding of the full range of impacts your products might have, enabling you to make more informed and environmentally conscious decisions.
Undertaking an LCA for your products or services does more than just enlighten you about their environmental effects; it offers a solid foundation from which you can effectively communicate these impacts. In an era where customers and stakeholders are placing a premium on transparency and accountability, this kind of open dialogue is becoming increasingly essential.
By carrying out an LCA, you gain tangible data and figures outlining your environmental footprint, which can be seamlessly incorporated into your Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) report. Rather than an optional add-on, conducting an LCA should be viewed as a crucial element of your environmental strategy, particularly when it comes to maintaining your company's reputation in our environmentally-conscious world.
👉 To find out more about CSR, why not check out our article?
If you’re interested to learn more about Greenly’s approach to life cycle assessments, we can provide an example. Here’s a simple rundown of how Greenly conducts a life cycle assessment (LCA) for products in the textile industry.
After accumulating product composition data, we create a comprehensive breakdown of the raw materials, measured in grams, for each product.
Next, we source the emission values for the entire textile fiber production chain from standard LCA databases and supplement them with data from scientific literature, when necessary.
Next, we multiply the weight of each material in the product by its carbon footprint to determine the emissions associated with raw material production.
Fabric manufacturing consumes significant electricity during all stages—spinning, weaving, and knitting. The environmental footprint depends on various factors, including the processes used, material types, and thread count.
The finishing process includes all steps required to achieve the desired fabric quality. The environmental impact is largely dependent on specific techniques used, such as dyeing, printing, and chemical or mechanical finishing.
Tailoring involves the final manufacturing stages, like cutting, ironing, and sewing. Here, the carbon footprint is primarily linked to electricity consumption, with carbon intensity varying based on the factory's location.
Transportation modeling encompasses several stages of the LCA, including transporting raw materials, inter-factory and storage warehouse routes, and final product delivery. We calculate the carbon footprint for each transportation mode by multiplying the distance, weight of goods, and an emission factor specific to the vehicle used.
In the textile sector, the impact of consumer usage is crucial. Various studies indicate that this phase can significantly contribute to a product's carbon footprint. Ignoring this aspect can skew comparisons among different products. Usage-related emissions mainly result from electricity consumption during washing and drying clothes. Results will therefore vary according to the place of sale, and depending on the carbon intensity of the country in question.
A textile product's end-of-life emissions can vary greatly, depending on the disposal method used (landfill, incineration, reuse, fiber transformation, or use as cleaning rags). As the product's fate is often unknown, Greenly will use a reference scenario established by industry-specific standards.
👉 Greenly previously carried out an LCA for CABAÏA - a clothing brand. The LCA was based on industry-specific methodological standards - in this case, the standards were provided by ADEME and AFNOR. These standards lay out the rules to be adhered to as well as generic values for modeling a textile product's LCA. To read more about this case study, please visit Greenly’s website.
At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required.
If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.
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Downstream vs upstream emissions - what do these terms mean and why are they important in the context of carbon accounting?
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