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Achieve net-zero through life cycle assessment

More and more organisations need to reduce their environmental impact. A method to achieve net-zero emissions is through life cycle assessment.

How does a life cycle assessment (LCA) help to achieve the commitments of the European Green Deal? More and more organisations are paying attention to a sustainability policy. Not only the European Green Deal in 2019 obliges companies to take action. Also, the outcomes of the recent UN climate conference COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November 2021 are having an impact. One of the key agreements calls on organisations to achieve “net-zero” emissions. This goal requires action from organisations. This article explains why taking action is required, what you can do, and how a life cycle assessment will help you.

Net-zero with life cycle assessment

The term ‘net-zero’ has been around for some time and is defined by the IPCC as the point at which emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere are offset by removals of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere over a certain period [1]. On an organisational level, specifically, the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) defines net-zero as the activities within an organisation’s entire supply chain having no net effect on the climate to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees [2]. The life cycle assessment quantifies the emissions throughout your entire supply chain. We can categorise these emissions in three different scopes. 

Emissions in scope 1, 2, and 3.

Organisations have an impact on greenhouse gas emissions at various levels. Emissions within the complete chain of an organisation are mapped using three impact levels. 

  • Scope 1 comprises the direct emissions within an organisation. This concerns emissions released by the organisation’s building, transport and production-related activities.
  • Scope 2 concerns the indirect emissions from direct energy consumption. These emissions are emitted outside the organisation’s boundaries, but directly affect its activities. 
  • Scope 3 includes at all other indirect emissions in the value chain. Think of the upstream emissions from production and outsourced transport of purchased materials.

Carbon compensation to net-zero

Currently, organisations can achieve net-zero in several ways, by reducing the chain’s emissions and/or compensating outside the chain. The last method is subject to criticism. Trouw [3], for example, writes that net-zero triggers a calculation in which organisations set off emissions against planting trees or CO2 storage. This can be the scope for creative arithmetic, when an organisation deliberately or undeliberately adopts false system boundaries or calculations. This can be battled with independent and verified LCA studies.

Reducing emissions in your supply chains

Research by Greenpeace in 2021 [4] shows that only some organisations that have committed themselves to the climate objectives want to reduce emissions within their chain. Many organisations want to achieve climate objectives using emission compensation. However, this way of increasing sustainability forgets that plants need time to grow in order to compensate for emissions, whereas directly reducing emissions in an organisation’s chain has immediate results.

Therefore, compensating by planting trees is not always the solution to disrupting the carbon cycle through resource depletion. Moreover, offsetting also assumes that there are no limits to solving one’s emissions with offsetting elsewhere than in one’s chain. Greenpeace, therefore, argues that reducing direct emissions in one’s chain is always better than offsetting. 

Life cycle assessment

Now that you know that it is better to reduce emissions in your chain rather than to compensate them, the question remains how to do it. A life cycle assessment helps you understand what and where the impact on your product or organisation is. An LCA is a unique method that quantifies the impact of the entire chain on humans and the environment. The information from an LCA allows you to make supported environmental strategic decisions. This means that you can calculate the impact on all impact categories, as described above.


Sources and links

[1] IPCC, 2018: Annex I: Glossary [Matthews, J.B.R. (ed.)]. In: Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, H.-O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J.B.R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M.I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, and T. Waterfield (eds.)].

[2] Science Based Targets. (2020, September). foundations for science-based net-zero target setting in the corporate sector.

[3] Bijlo, E. (2022, 1 januari). Vier belangrijke trends die in 2022 klimaatverandering moeten tegengaan. Trouw.

[4] Greenpeace. (2021, January). Net Expectations.

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