Feature Story: Life Cycle Assessment: A Valuable Tool for Environmental Impact Analysis

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is an environmental accounting tool used to assess environmental impacts associated with the implementation of a product, service or system. It is essentially an environmental footprint analysis that provides a quantitative assessment of the life cycle of a product or service, often evaluating the environmental impacts of production, manufacturing, distribution, use and disposal.

“A very simple example of a question where LCA might be useful is the ‘paper versus plastic bag’ dilemma,” explained Lisa Colosi Peterson, PhD, a University of Virginia associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. Colosi Peterson is also the co-director of UVA’s LCA Laboratory where she uses LCA to evaluate sustainability for water and energy infrastructure, focusing particularly on algae-to-energy systems. “You need to make a decision about the best option in terms of having the least negative impact on the environment. LCA gives you the power, through modeling and quantitative analysis, to make an informed decision.”

“Take, for example, the issue of high fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. If we want to achieve maximum fuel efficiencies, then LCA provides a systematic approach to understanding the scope of the problem, evaluating options, compiling an environmental inventory, and measuring impacts. It’s a robust approach to bench-marking and decision-making.”

Several years ago, she and UVA collaborators, Andres Clarens, PhD, and James Lambert, PhD, received funding from the Virginia Center for Transportation Innovation and Research (VCTIR) to explore how renewable fuel policies in Europe could affect Dulles International Airport and the affordability of trans-Atlantic flights. The study examined the readiness of Virginia and other states to achieve various European greenhouse gas targets, accounting for the economic and environmental impacts of converting available raw materials into biofuels. The LCA provided insight on the potential to develop a viable alternative jet fuel program in the southeast.

LCA is a valuable tool for any planners who are concerned about how the systems they implement will affect the environment. “LCA creates a common language around environmental impacts,” stated Colosi Peterson. “It’s not just for environmental engineers. It is a powerful tool for addressing sustainability and efficiency issues for any project that has environmental impacts.”

Dr. Colosi Peterson may be contacted at lmcolosi@virginia.edu.