LCA Summit: Standards for Measuring a Product’s Life Cycle Emissions

Image source: GE Global Research

At the LCA Sustainable Supply Chain Summit in Chicago last week companies like Texas Instruments, HP and MillerCoors said they ask suppliers to report carbon emissions. A representative from BASF, a chemical company, said it voluntarily makes its greenhouse gas (GHG) information available to the companies to which it supplies goods. GE has developed an entire suite of LCA tools, which it uses to glean information about the benefits and risks of individual products across the value chain.

As tracking scope 1 (direct emissions from fuel combustion) and scope 2 (indirect emissions from purchased electricity) emissions becomes a more comfortable and routine process, companies are increasingly looking beyond their own boundaries to their supply chains. This expanded focus includes measuring emissions from the products and services purchased from suppliers (scope 3), and calculating emissions for the end-to-end life cycle of a single product.

Bill Flanagan, ecoassessment leader at GE Global Research explained that one of the common issues in industrial applications of LCA is the comparability of results. Assumptions, system boundaries goals and scope prevent meaningful comparisons of product LCAs between products of different types or by products of the same type by different companies. Luckily, several tools are currently in development to support this type of comparison by providing standards for measuring the carbon footprint of a product or service. Representatives from two of the largest international organizations undertaking this effort spoke at the conference. They summarized their respective standards as follows.

ISO 14067

The proposed standard ISO 14067 is under development by International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which is represented by 161 countries, and has published a suite of sustainability-related standards, including those relating to GHG measurement. ISO’s standards promote consistency and comparability of an organization or business entity, and are purposely developed to be neutral, adaptable and auditable, said Ann Bowles, senior manager of ANSI, which represents the US at the ISO. The proposed standard includes two sections, one each for quantifying and communicating results. Details of 14067 are included below.

Scope: Covers all goods and services

Accounting gases: Includes the IPCC gases: CO2, CH4, N20, substances controlled by the Montreal Protocol

Life cycle: B2C (cradle to grave), B2B (cradle to gate) and others

Calculation: GHG emissions x GWP* (100-year time horizon)

Verification: ISO 14040 requires third-party reports

Expected release: March 2012

*GWP is global warming potential, a way to normalize the “potency” of different gases relative to carbon dioxide, with respect to their ability to cause global warming. For example, it is said that a molecule of methane causes 21x more global warming than a molecule of carbon dioxide, so the GWP of methane is 21.

Greenhouse Gas Protocol Initiative

Currently in Draft form, the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Initiative’s Product Life Cycle Accounting & Reporting Standard builds on the organization’s existing life cycle assessment methods. Following a public comment period on the first drafts (developed over several years by 1200+ stakeholders), road testing began in January 2010. In this phase, more than 60 companies in 17 countries will provide input to ensure that the standards generate credible and meaningful data, while considering the practical challenges that businesses and programs will face during implementation. A second public comment period will take place in Sept 2010. Details of the standard are summarized below.

Scope: Applicable to all types of goods and services

Accounting gases: Kyoto Protocol gases: CO2, CH4, N2O, SF6, HFCs, PFCs

Life cycle: Includes all stages of the life cycle from cradle to grave

Calculation: GHG emissions x GWP (100-year time horizon)

Verification: First party and third party assurance are both permissible

Expected release: December 2010

Conference attendees expressed some concern at the possibility for two different global standards to compete and undermine one another. Representatives from each organization assured the audience that both participate as stakeholders in each other’s development process, and that there are no major discrepancies between the two standards.

Sheila Samuelson is a Sustainable Business Strategist at Bright Green Strategy. She has earned an MBA in sustainable management from Presidio Graduate School, and has sustainability experience in the public, private and non-profit sectors. Samuelson has helped Greensburg, Kansas work toward a sustainable recovery from the devastating 2007 tornado; worked with the San Francisco Department of the Environment; co-founded a designed a green business certification program for the area surrounding Dubuque, IA; and helped some of the largest global corporations measure and track their sustainability metrics.