Setting life cycle assessment (LCA) in a future-oriented context: the combination of qualitative scenarios and LCA in the agri-food sector
By combining qualitative scenarios and life cycle assessment (LCA), we place the latter in a larger context. This study outlines the importance of the integration of future perspectives into LCA, and also the significance of taking changes in the environment of technology into account, rather than just technological development itself. Accordingly, we focused on adapting the background system of an attributional LCA in the agri-food sector. The proposed technology was assumed not have evolved in the considered time horizon. In this context, the objectives of this paper were twofold: (i) to methodologically prove the applicability of integrating qualitative scenarios into LCA and (ii) to focus on changes in the background system, which is sometimes overlooked in the context of future-oriented LCA. This allowed to evaluate the future potential of different technologies, assessing their environmental impact under uncertain future developments. Methodologically, the qualitative information from scenarios was transformed into quantitative data, which was successively fed into the life cycle inventory (LCI) of the LCA approach. This point of integration into the second phase of LCA translates into future changes in the entire environment in which a technology is used. This means that qualitatively described scenario narratives need to be converted into value estimates in order to be incorporated into the LCA model. A key conclusion is that changes in the background of an LCA-the changing framework expressed through the inventory database-can be very important for the environmental impact of emerging technologies. This approach was applied to a food processing technology to produce apple juice. The proposed methodology enables technology developers to make their products future-proof and robust against socioeconomic development. In addition, the market perspective, if spelled out in the scenarios, can be integrated, leading to a more holistic picture of LCA with its environmental focus, while simultaneously empowering actors to make the right strategic decisions today, especially when considering the long investment cycles in the agri-food sector.
KU Leuven, Division of Bioeconomics, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences