March 23rd 2023

Carbon Footprints and LCAs

Shoe size 2050 - how life cycle assessments help us reduce our footprint

They can now be found on many everyday products: Carbon Footprints. They quickly give us an overview of how many emissions were emitted in the production of the item we are about to buy, or the carbon footprint we leave in the environment by buying the product.

Carbon footprints can be calculated not only for products, but also for processes and entire companies. The life cycle Assessments (LCAs) on which the calculations are usually based make it possible to take a complete look at all the emissions that an item causes along its life cycle.

At MCI, life cycle analyses are used for sustainability considerations on a wide range of topics. A cooperative project between the Environmental, Process and Energy Engineering program and the Center for Social and Health Innovation (CSHI) at MCI recently looked at options for transporting marble downhill in Laas, South Tyrol, on behalf of the Laas administration. The focus was on an ecological comparison of the variants of transport with existing trucks or a newly constructed material ropeway. By considering the entire life cycle of the ropeway and truck, the quite surprising result was obtained under the given conditions that the continued use of the trucks with short lifetimes and small production capacities actually has a smaller carbon footprint than the new construction of the ropeway. The reason for this is the CO2 impact that the construction materials of the ropeway bring with them from their production. However, these decrease drastically when the lifetime and production capacity of the ropeway are increased. In fact, with a slightly increased lifetime and the planned production capacity, there is an overall advantage for the ropeway. What is more, in a complete LCA not only the carbon footprint is analyzed, but all relevant environmental impacts. Thus, aspects such as noise and particulate matter pollution, energy efficiency and land consumption were also examined in the present analysis. Overall, this resulted in a clear ecological advantage for the ropeway.

When a carbon footprint is calculated according to international standards, not only the emissions generated in a factory directly through energy consumption for production are included. Emissions that were emitted during the extraction of raw materials or even during the construction of the factory are also taken into account. A "cradle to gate" approach describes emissions emitted from the cradle, i.e. the first step in the manufacture of a product - usually the extraction of raw materials - to the gate through which the product leaves the factory. This means that people know what CO2 impact the product already has from its production process and can base their purchasing decision on this.

Complete LCAs also include the disposal of products and the demolition of production facilities at the end of their life. Due to the consideration from the beginning to the end of the lifetime of an item, this is referred to as "from cradle to grave". A complete LCA according to the current ISO standards 14040/14044 or the GHG Protocol must also include this sphere. LCAs are therefore our best tool for examining production processes for hotspots with high emissions and taking appropriate countermeasures.

As part of the European Union's Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), reports on the greenhouse gas emissions of companies and their supply chains will become mandatory in the next few years, starting in 2023. The relevance of LCAs will thus continue to increase in the near future.

With its interdisciplinary study programs, the MCI is well positioned to cover the full range of sustainability with ecological, economic and social aspects in analyses.

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 Lucas Schuchter, BSc MSc | Teaching & Research Assistant Bachelor's program Environmental, Process & Energy Engineering
Lucas Schuchter, BSc MSc Teaching & Research Assistant +43 512 2070 - 3224
Dr. Lukas Kerschbaumer | Head of Bachelors Program Nonprofit, Social & Health Care Management Bachelor's program Nonprofit, Social & Health Care Management
Dr. Lukas Kerschbaumer Head of Bachelor's Program Nonprofit, Social & Health Care Management