If you don’t understand the inner workings of LCA don’t be embarrassed, here is a quick study guide to the inner life of LCA.

In a recent article, Getting Sustainability Assessment Right, the concept of Life cycle analysis (LCA) was presented, along with the current drivers for its increasing uptake.

To recap, these included the requirement for LCA summary reporting by major groups such as Lend Lease on their Barangaroo project, Grocon, the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) and the newly introduced LCA innovation credits in their Green Star tool as well as the new LEED V4 (in use in at least five major projects in Australia currently that this author is aware of and 130-plus other countries) as well as BREEAM International.

The increasing profile of LCA is also increasing the necessity for industry professionals to improve their knowledge about it, its components, standards and requirements. Knowledge of the essential nature and jargon of LCA is now becoming a matter that will affect both perception of and actual professional standing and capability. With this in mind, here is a quick summary of the key definitions and standards should help avoid professional embarrassment in that next important client or project meeting:

Life Cycle Analysis is undertaken in compliance with AS/NZS ISO 140040 and 14044 standards. A ‘Cradle to Gate’ LCA scope studies all environmental, resource and some health impacts from raw material acquisition through processing, manufacturing, transport and packaging impacts up to it being ready for delivery from the factory.

The LCA scope described as ‘Cradle to Grave’ typically also includes cleaning and maintenance and finishes with the expired product in landfill. It is now characterised as ‘Cradle to End-of-Life Fate’ to include the potential for its re-use or recycling. This is sometimes mistakenly characterised as ‘Cradle to Cradle.’

Cradle to Cradle scope would actually include the reworking of the product into its new form and in practice is only used for specific studies that need to look at the second life of the product. When embodied carbon greenhouse emissions are studied, the most relevant standard is AS/NZS ISO 14067, which is based on the LCA standards mentioned above.

Even a small, complete LCA study is a substantial document typically 40 to 140 pages long and way too detailed to make it practical for widespread use by building and design or procurement professionals. Instead, a summary format has been developed.

Environmental Product Declarations or EPDs are the ‘currency’ of LCA within building and other sectors. EPDs are undertaken in accordance with AS/NZS ISO 14025 and are short version LCA reports typically seven to 20 pages long designed to allow product EPDs to be consistent and allow comparison between products.

One of the things that has held LCA back is the lack of comparability when different consultants use different scope or boundaries or make different assumptions in their studies. So EPDs were developed to their own standard that encompass the LCA standards but sets out standardised detail for conducting and reporting in EPDs to maximise consistency between them.

Product Category Rules or PCRs are a key strategy to standardise EPD and LCA studies. When reading and comparing EPDs always check which PCR has been used and if they are different check to make sure that the scope, boundary and other potential variations are consistent between PCRs. Many different LCA organisations have developed their own PCRs such as PRe Consultants (SimaPro LCA Software), PE International (GABI LCA Software), ULe, Global GreenTag, among others. To minimise the number of PCR variants used, there are a number of PCR and EPD registries globally.

The development of an Australasian EPD and PCR registry is currently underway with the formal signing during 2013 of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Australian Life Cycle Association (ALCAS) and the New Zealand Life Cycle Association (NZLCA) in association with Sweden based International EPD Program to ensure compatibility and acceptance within international markets.