Science Inventory

Area of Concern: a new paradigm in life cycle assessment for the development of footprint metrics


Ridoutt, B., S. Pfister, A. Manzardo, J. Bare, A. Boulay, F. Cherubini, P. Fantke, R. Frischknecht, M. Hauschild, A. Henderson, O. Jolliet, A. Levasseur, M. Margni, T. McKone, O. Michelsen, L. Milà i Canals, G. Page, R. Pant, M. Raugei, S. Sala, AND F. Verones. Area of Concern: a new paradigm in life cycle assessment for the development of footprint metrics. The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment. Springer-Verlag, BERLIN-HEIDELBERG, Germany, 21(2):276-280, (2016).


This paper represents the results of a consensus-building process to bring clarity to the proliferation of 'footprinting' techniques. The potential confusion and miscommunication brought about by this proliferation runs the risk of undermining the utility and acceptance of life-cycle based tools. This paper establishes the relationship between life cycle assessment and footprinting.


Purpose: As a class of environmental metrics, footprints have been poorly defined, have shared an unclear relationship to life cycle assessment (LCA), and the variety of approaches to quantification have sometimes resulted in confusing and contradictory messages in the marketplace. In response, a task force operating under the auspices of the UNEP/SETAC Life Cycle Initiative project on environmental life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) has been working to develop generic guidance for developers of footprint metrics. The purpose of this paper is to introduce a universal footprint definition and related terminology as well as to discuss modelling implications.MethodsThe task force has worked from the perspective that footprints should be based on LCA methodology, underpinned by the same data systems and models as used in LCA. However, there are important differences in purpose and orientation relative to LCA impact category indicators. Footprints have a primary orientation toward society and nontechnical stakeholders. They are also typically of narrow scope, having the purpose of reporting only in relation to specific topics. In comparison, LCA has a primary orientation toward stakeholders interested in comprehensive evaluation of overall environmental performance and trade-offs among impact categories. These differences create tension between footprints, the existing LCIA framework based on the area of protection paradigm and the core LCA standards ISO14040/44.Results and discussionIn parallel to area of protection, we introduce area of concern as the basis for a universal footprint definition. In the same way that LCA uses impact category indicators to assess impacts that follow a common cause-effect pathway toward areas of protection, footprint metrics address areas of concern. The critical difference is that areas of concern are defined by the interests of stakeholders in society rather than the LCA community. In addition, areas of concern are stand-alone and not necessarily part of a framework intended for comprehensive environmental performance assessment. The area of concern paradigm is needed to support the development of footprints in a way that fulfils their distinctly different purpose. It is also needed as a mechanism to extricate footprints from some of the provisions of ISO 14040/44 which are not considered relevant. Specific issues are identified in relation to double counting, aggregation and the selection of relevant indicators.ConclusionsThe universal footprint definition and related terminology introduced in this paper create a foundation that will support the development of footprint metrics in parallel with LCA.

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Record Details:

Product Published Date: 02/01/2016
Record Last Revised: 02/15/2017
OMB Category: Other
Record ID: 335232