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Systems Thinking a Hot Topic at LCA XVII

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Logo for LCA XVIIThe growing trend towards higher-level systems thinking in sustainability analysis was much in evidence at this year’s American Center for Life Cycle Assessment (ACLCA) LCA XVII conference, held in Portsmouth, NH on October 3 - 5.

Optimism was the theme of this year’s conference, which welcomed a worldwide cadre of professionals from academia, industry, government, and NGOs to learn about current work and research on LCA, and to postulate future accomplishments and changes in the field. 

Leaders emphasized the importance of using systems thinking to approach problem-solving, especially for complex, cascading non-linear problems like global warming and poverty. Representatives from government were recognized for launching regionalized data collection and synthesis initiatives to assist practitioners and academics with their studies, and representatives from industry were applauded for making the business case for LCA and integrating its practice into many stages of the supply chain.

One high point came when Lise Laurin, EarthShift Global’s founder and CEO, was honored with the 2017 ACLCA Lifetime Achievement Award for her pioneering work in advancing LCA processes and practices. On her acceptance Lise noted that she "…wasn’t done."

Pre-conference workshops covered topics ranging from environmental handprints and social life cycle assessment to assessment tools like the Chemical Life Cycle Collaborative (CLiCC) and the Brightway framework; the conference itself centered on oral presentations, both on the regular conference schedule and on the Executive Track for presentations and discussions specific to LCA in industry. Student poster exhibitions (Sponsored by EarthShift Global) and networking opportunities filled in the breaks between these structured sessions. 

Posters at LCA XVII sponsored by EarthShift GlobalTopics touched upon during the regular schedule were: new developments in impact assessment, recycling and allocation, uncertainty in LCA, Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), solar and low-carbon technologies, impacts of using and treating water, energy production, and LCA in Europe versus the United States. Subjects brought up on the Executive Track were: case studies demonstrating the business use of LCA, data collection and working with suppliers, ISO standards, and product sustainability by design.

One noteworthy presentation, Framework for an Open-source Life Cycle Baseline for Electricity Consumption in the United States, discussed collaborative efforts by the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) . Their goal is to supply regionalized life cycle inventory (LCI) datasets for U.S. electricity production and distribution, based on collective input from federal agencies – a step that would improve the specificity and accuracy of a large percentage of LCAs.

This is another area where systems thinking comes into play – it’s integral to understanding life cycle impacts and providing energy security within a constantly evolving supply and demand network that draws on renewable energy, natural gas, coal, and nuclear. The framework is currently being developed in OpenLCA and offers analysis capabilities at various scales in space and time. It will be able to quantify metrics such as air emissions, water use, and energy consumption, ultimately assisting LCA practitioners in their studies and informing future policy decisions.

One especially appealing aspect of the LCA XVII format was that attendees could choose, in each time block, sessions where they could offer expert insight on a subject they knew well or others where they could learn about content unfamiliar to them. This helped ensure that, even with a broad assortment of discussion topics, the forum was anything but isolating -- people could both play to their individual strengths and learn from others. 

As a result, there was a constant supply of fresh ideas when people met for the first time or regrouped by poster setups in the long hallway or at large circular tables during meals. Every attendee had unique experiences they could speak to and share, and everyone was then able to take these new perspectives back with them across the country or globe to generate even more discussion and innovation.


photo of jillian crowley, junior analyst

About the Author

Jillian Crowley, EarthShift Global's junior sustainability analyst, conducts Life Cycle Inventory (LCI), Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) studies for EarthShift Global clients, and assists with project management and development of tools for LCA and Sustainable Return on Investment (S-ROI).