Similarities and Differences between Carbon Footprint and Life Cycle Analysis

With the buzzword “Sustainability” flying everywhere, it has become tough to distinguish between numerous environmental assessments available around us. Life cycle assessments, carbon footprint analysis, water footprint analysis, CSR reports, VOC testing, environmental risk assessments, the list goes on and on. Life cycle assessment and carbon footprint analysis are two of the most common of these assessments.

There are a number of similarities and differences between these two.

Such approaches are central to green claims as well as to understanding greenwashing. Let’s have a clear understanding about both of these two assessments to understand the similarities and differences:

Carbon Footprint Analysis

Carbon Footprint Analysis, referred as Greenhouse Gas Emissions Assessment, analyzes the greenhouse gas emissions by the production of a product or any given activity that contributes to global warming. First of all the emissions of carbon, sulfurhexafluoride, and methane are assessed. After the emissions are found, the assessment converts the output into carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e). Three core standards around carbon footprint analysis are the GHG Protocol, ISO DS 14067, and PAS 2050. The GHG Protocol is the most commonly used international tool for business leaders and governments to comprehend, quantify and control GHG emissions.

It includes four different standards:

Product Life Cycle Accounting and Reporting Standard: This standard involves understanding product life cycle GHG emissions, including raw materials used, production, distribution and disposal akin to a Product LCA.  

Corporate Value Chain Accounting and Reporting Standard: This standard is intended for organizations or businesses to evaluate their entire value chain and calculate the environmental impacts by the GHG emission by the value chain.

The standard also involves identifying possible ways to lessen GHG emissions.

Project Accounting Protocol and Guidelines: This standard is used to assess reductions of GHG emissions by any given projects.

Corporate Accounting and Reporting Standards: This is more or less the same as an organizational LCA. It is intended for organizations/businesses and is used to assess GHG emissions from business operating and activities.

Everything has a carbon footprint. So, carbon footprint can be assigned to a product, a production plant, and an organization or a business.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

LCA systematically assesses multiple environmental impacts of a product, activity or a process over the life cycle of that product, activity or process. It has been around for more than 30 years now. Carbon footprint analysis thus is a subset of a complete life cycle assessment of a product, activity or process. The core standards around LCA are ISO 14044 and ISO 14040. Just like a carbon footprint, LCA can be done for a product, service, project, and an organization. The multiple assessment categories under LCA include impacts on natural resource depletion, climate change, ecosystem degradation and human health.

 

LCA, in addition to GHG, takes environmental releases and all other material inputs throughout the life cycle into account and assesses all the potential direct and indirect impacts on the environment.  Thus, LCA is a “Multi-Criteria” analysis that assesses multiple environmental impacts. On the other hand, Carbon footprint is basically a “Mono-criterion” analysis as it focuses on only one environmental impact, climate change by GHG emission.

Both analyses depend on functional approaches to impact measurement. In effect, a "functional unit", or the environmental impact output of a studied product, process or activity, serves as the foundation for assessment and facilitates comparability between products, process, and activity or any other above mentioned items with similar functional units.

These days, there are various online carbon footprint and LCA assessment tools that can be used to have some general ideas about possible environmental impacts of any product, process, activity, business or project. http://www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator/and http://www.lcacalculator.com/ are two most popular calculators available online.

References

http://www.incpen.org/displayarticle.asp?a=16&c=2

http://www.empreintecarbonequebec.org/en/empreinte_carbone_acv.php#.VeUAViWqqko

http://earthshift.com/blog/2014/02/what-s-difference-between-carbon-footprint-and-lca