LCA Application: Greenhouse Gas Detective

Tracking how products are made and how they are disposed of can be complicated. However, by focusing in on the trail of ‘usual suspects’, you’ll be able to solve your case without spending a lot of time on wild goose chases.

Getting Ready

Illustration of LCA phases. These are often interdependent in that the results of one phase will inform how other phases are completed.Determine what resources and/or pollutants you want to consider for a particular project.

Identify which kinds of environmental costs and impacts are especially important for your project. These might include emissions to water bodies, to the air, or to the ground. For some projects, you may only be interested in greenhouse gas emissions. For others, it may also be important to consider how the water supply to local wells might be affected.  Recognize that the more kinds of costs and impacts that you choose to include can make this type of analysis more complex.  Therefore, take some time to evaluate how far you need to go to meet your community priorities and consider if outside expertise may be needed.

Collect All Your Clues

Next you’ll need to collect some numbers. Let’s focus on just greenhouse gas emissions, to keep things simpler. You’ll need to figure out how much energy and materials your project will use. This will include getting the materials to and from where you need them.

For a building project, you would need to estimate how much energy the new building will use each year and determine the energy source, for each option. You would also need to estimate the amounts of materials used to build the building, how far they came from, and how the materials were transported.

For a transportation project, you would need to estimate (among other things) how many more or less trips would result from the project, and what kinds of vehicles would be making those trips.

For a solid waste project, you would need to estimate how much garbage is being produced and collected, how many vehicles are required to haul the waste, the amount of fuel used in each vehicle, how far they travel, and what kind of facility the waste is taken to. You may also want to get a breakdown of what’s in the garbage, because you’ll be estimating how much energy went into making the products.

Tracing the Footsteps

Once you know how much energy and other materials you’ll be consuming, you’ll next estimate how much energy it took to make or collect the energy and products (the ‘cradle’), and how much energy it will take to dispose of the products (the ‘grave’).

Solving the Case

The last step is to estimate how much damage all those resources and energy are causing. For example, the amount of greenhouse gases released from using energy can be estimated.

If this sounds daunting, don’t worry! There are tools available to help guide you through collecting data and turning it into the numbers you want, so that you can choose options that cause less damage.