How to conduct prospective life cycle assessment for emerging technologies?
A systematic review and methodological guidance
Emerging technologies are expected to contribute to environmental sustainable development. However, throughout the development of novel technologies, it is unknown whether emerging technologies can lead to reduced environmental impacts compared to a potentially displaced mature technology. Additionally, process steps suspected to be environmental hotspots can be improved by process engineers early in the development of the emerging technology. In order to determine the environmental impacts of emerging technologies at an early stage of development, prospective life cycle assessment (LCA) should be performed. However, consistency in prospective LCA methodology is lacking. Therefore, this article develops a framework for a prospective LCA in order to overcome the methodological inconsistencies regarding prospective LCAs. The methodological framework was developed using literature on prospective LCAs of emerging technologies, and therefore, a literature review on prospective LCAs was conducted. We found 44 case studies, four review papers, and 17 papers on methodological guidance. Three main challenges for conducting prospective LCAs are identified: Comparability, data, and uncertainty challenges. The issues in defining the aim, functionality, and system boundaries of the prospective LCAs, as well as problems with specifying LCIA methodologies, comprise the comparability challenge. Data availability, quality, and scaling are issues within the data challenge. Finally, uncertainty exists as an overarching challenge when applying a prospective LCA. These three challenges are especially crucial for the prospective assessment of emerging technologies. However, this review also shows that within the methodological papers and case studies, several approaches exist to tackle these challenges. These approaches were systematically summarized within a framework to give guidance on how to overcome the issues when conducting prospective LCAs of emerging technologies. Accordingly, this framework is useful for LCA practitioners who are analyzing early-stage technologies. Nevertheless, further research is needed to develop appropriate scale-up schemes and to include uncertainty analyses for a more in-depth interpretation of results.