When a new technology or product is coming up, decision makers often do not know whether or under which conditions they should support its implementation or production, respectively. This is a classical decision situation that benefits from ex-ante decision support based on sustainability assessment. Main addressees are often politicians as they are appointed to serve long-term public well-being. Additionally, sustainability assessment becomes increasingly important for companies. They have to decide about high investments and thus need long-term business perspectives, which are more and more influenced by sustainability-related legislation and public perception. Therefore, it is vital to know about impacts on sustainability and potential pitfalls.
Life cycle based assessment methodologies such as the (environmental) life cycle assessment (LCA), life cycle costing (LCC) and social life cycle assessment (sLCA) are valuable tools for decision support that analyse the impacts of whole product life cycles on individual aspects of sustainability. However, the more aspects are analysed the more difficult it becomes to derive coherent conclusions and concrete recommendations. Integrated life cycle sustainability assessment (ILCSA) builds on these methodologies and provides a practical approach to integrate them. It harmonises the parallel assessment of individual sustainability aspects by introducing common definitions, settings and system models. It is flexible and open to the assessment of any aspect that is relevant to sustainability by any suitable methodology including but not limited to LCA, LCC and sLCA. Furthermore, ILCSA analyses potential barriers that could lead to unintended side effects when attempting to implement scenarios that have been found to be sustainable in the first place (example: limited biomass availability may push operators of an otherwise sustainable conversion plant to using unsustainable sources). Finally, the results are integrated in a structured discussion that does not require debatable weighting factors. This way, synergies and conflicts regarding several sustainability goals are highlighted and can be managed instead of hiding the existent complexity of the systems under investigation.
Experience in practical application
ILCSA has been and is being successfully applied as accompanying research in many large technology development projects. The range of integrated assessment methodologies and impacts so far includes regional and global environmental impacts (by LCA), local environmental impacts (by LC-EIA), resource availability (by biomass potential analysis), economic impacts (by LCC), market potentials, technological risks and maturity (by technological assessment), social aspects (by sLCA and social impact assessment, SIA) and legal aspects. For examples please refer to the integrated sustainability assessment reports of the projects below.