LCA for Space Applications

Addressing the growing need for sustainable exploitation of space is the one of the Stardust-Reloaded project objectives. From very beginning of the project, we pay a lot of attention to methods and approaches to assess the environmental impact of current and future space related technologies. We are very keen to share relevant knowledge and our findings with audience outwith the research community including industry, educational institutes, and general public. As a result of our past and recent activities, we offer a workshop for businesses involved with space systems and applications. The content of the workshop aimed to enlighten business community about the concept and benefits of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methods and to provide some guidelines for implementing these methods in practice.

What is LCA?

Life Cycle Assessment is a systematic method of analysis, which can be used to scientifically quantify the potential environmental impacts of products throughout their entire life cycle, typically from a cradle-to-grave perspectives.  LCA is internationally standardized through the ISO 14040:2006 and ISO 14044:2005 standards which govern the LCA approach.
 LCA is most commonly used on products but can also be applied to processes and/or services. There is really no limit to its use, including what industry it can be applied to. For example, they have been used on a variety of different things from toilet paper to spacecraft. Additionally, they have been applied to entire systems like recycling, to many different processes like technology roadmaps and to a range of complex services like rail service operation.
The image below is the generic LCA framework set up through these standards, which consists of four stages:

  • Goal & Scope: Sets the purpose of the study and establishes criteria for which all decisions within each stage of the LCA should relate.
  • Inventory analysis: Involves data collection and calculation procedures to quantify inputs and outputs of the product system.
  • Impact assessment: Translates the inventory analysis into environmental impacts and evaluates their significance.
  • Interpretation: Considers the results in the context of the Goal & Scope whilst providing a set of study conclusions, limitations and recommendations.

There are also several different types of LCA that can be used (conceptual, streamlined, detailed) and several different methodologies that can be applied (process-based, input-output, hybrid).

To whom is LCA applicable?

The European Commission estimates that around 80% of all product-related environmental impacts are determined during the design phase of a product. Given the stated purpose of LCA, the method can be considered to be highly applicable to organizations who have the most capacity to lessen such impacts. However, LCAs are a huge undertaking and many organizations lack the capacity to conduct these on their own. As such, most LCAs will require outside experts, which include many different people playing many different roles such as:

  • Environmental expert: typically a consultant who manages and conducts the project, serving as technical resource. 
  • Engineering expert: an expert on the engineering management systems of the organization who can access engineering data.
  • Manufacturing expert: an expert who can provide operational information.
  • Purchasing: ensures the data format can support purchasing decisions, supporting the team in choosing a practitioner.
  • Others: may involve contributions from the marketing team, external stakeholders, etc.

Why is LCA important to you?

ISO-compliant LCA studies are currently seen to be the most reliable method for calculating environmental impacts of products.  Besides this, from a business perspective, it can also help with:

  • Design: making changes to lessen the environmental impact of products.
  • Development: facilitating technological development and advancing with the times.
  • Purchasing: finding better alternatives, cutting costs and ensuring responsible procurement processes are implemented.
  • Legislation: identifying and lessening risk in the supply chain due to current and future legislation.
  • Tracking: comparing the environmental performance with last year.
  • Benchmarking: determining a baseline on the performance of products in comparison to competitors and next to all the others in the same industry.
  • Marketing: responding to customer demand for environmentally benign products to create a competitive advantage.
  • Policy: implementing initiatives to improve overall environmental outcomes.
  • Reputational: being seen to be a company leading on sustainability by proactively creating a better future for all.

When should you use LCA?

An LCA is most useful when there is reliable input data and fewer unknowns. Once it is clear how materials and resources will flow through the system, an LCA can be more effective. This can be used to calculate a wide array of impacts such as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, ozone depletion, resource use, eutrophication, impact on human health and much more. Typically, one LCA is completed per project, although several can be conducted along various points in the design and development process, similar to the concept of eco-design. Eco-design is an approach for designing products that gives special consideration to environmental impacts of a product over its entire lifecycle. The difference with LCA is an analytical tool whilst ecodesign is a procedural tool. Analytical tools are primarily defined by principles of quantitative modelling whilst procedural tools are defined by the structure of work and used for integrating environmental concerns into various activities.

How can you start using LCA?

The best place to start is to read the ISO standards on LCA. In particular, ISO 14040:2006 describes the principles and framework for LCA and is written for a managerial audience. Comparatively, ISO 14044:2006 specifies the requirements and provides guidelines for LCA meaning that it targets practitioners.

If you purely wish to quantify GHG emissions of your business, bear in mind that carbon accounting may be a better method than LCA, depending on the scope of your study. Whilst LCA can be used to quantify life cycle GHG emissions of products, carbon accounting is the more appropriate tool for measuring the GHG emissions of an organization. Carbon accounting has not been covered as a method in this brochure.

If you want to have a go at LCA yourself, you will need to make sure you have suitable software and/or LCA database to conduct your LCA (including applicable licenses). The choice of database you use should be selected based on a number of criteria points such as temporal, geographical and technical correlation to the product under study as well as reliability.