Overview and recommendations for regionalized life cycle impact assessment

Abstract

Purpose

Regionalized life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) has rapidly developed in the past decade, though its widespread application, robustness, and validity still face multiple challenges. Under the umbrella of UNEP/SETAC Life Cycle Initiative, a dedicated cross-cutting working group on regionalized LCIA aims to provide an overview of the status of regionalization in LCIA methods. We give guidance and recommendations to harmonize and support regionalization in LCIA for developers of LCIA methods, LCI databases, and LCA software.

Methods

A survey of current practice among regionalized LCIA method developers was conducted. The survey included questions on chosen method’s spatial resolution and scale, the spatial resolution of input parameters, the choice of native spatial resolution and limitations, operationalization and alignment with life cycle inventory data, methods for spatial aggregation, the assessment of uncertainty from input parameters and model structure, and the variability due to spatial aggregation. Recommendations are formulated based on the survey results and extensive discussion by the authors.

Results and discussion

Survey results indicate that majority of regionalized LCIA models have global coverage. Native spatial resolutions are generally chosen based on the availability of global input data. Annual modeled or measured elementary flow quantities are mostly used for aggregating characterization factors (CFs) to larger spatial scales, although some use proxies, such as population counts. Aggregated CFs are mostly available at the country level. Although uncertainty due to input parameter, model structure, and spatial aggregation are available for some LCIA methods, they are rarely implemented for LCA studies. So far, there is no agreement if a finer native spatial resolution is the best way to reduce overall uncertainty. When spatially differentiated model CFs are not easily available, archetype models are sometimes developed.

Conclusions

Regionalized LCIA methods should be provided as a transparent and consistent set of data and metadata using standardized data formats. Regionalized CFs should include both uncertainty and variability. In addition to the native-scale CFs, aggregated CFs should always be provided and should be calculated as the weighted averages of constituent CFs using annual flow quantities as weights whenever available. This paper is an important step forward for increasing transparency, consistency, and robustness in the development and application of regionalized LCIA methods.

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