Changes To ISO Standards Help Ensure Better Quality LCA Studies


Recent changes have been made to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) norms that standardize the methodology for life cycle assessment (LCA). LCA? Not just another in the long list of abbreviations; it is a process for evaluating the environmental effects associated with a product, process or service over the course of its entire life cycle . It's come a long way since the 1960s where its roots took shape as the result of the need for energy optimization within industry. The first "multi-criteria" study, as it was deemed back then, was carried out by Coca-Cola around 1969. The process was further developed at a SETAC conference in Vermont in 1990, which included inventory, interpretation and improvement. ISO later standardized the methodology with the publication of ISO 14040 — Life Cycle Assessment Principles and Framework) in 1997, which was later added to in 1998 (14041 — Goal & Scope Definition and Inventory Analysis) and 2000 (14042 — Life Cycle Impact Assessment, 14043 — Life Cycle Interpretation). These are the standards that have been "revised, cancelled and replaced" by the publication of ISO 14040:2006 outlining LCA principles and framework and ISO 14044:2006 for requirements and guidelines.
Matthias Finkbeiner et. al. published a great article in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment that outlines the changes made. Here are a few of the highlights. First and most obvious, by amalgamating the 4 standards into 2, not only are they more concise (condensed from 44 pages to 26!) with requirements to meet only one list (14044) instead of 3, they are also more straightforward for both LCA experts and the larger public. The technical requirements remain largely the same and adjustments for new LCAs aren't very difficult if the previous norms were followed. The 4 stages featured in the 1997 standard remain the same in 2006 as seen in the above UNEP image.

A few technical changes have been made to correct errors and inconsistencies. Definitions have been added, along with LCA principles which were not previously included. The principles are life cycle perspective, environmental focus, relative approach and functional unit, iterative approach, transparency, comprehensiveness, and priority of scientific approach. All good principles for scientifically valid studies.

Probably the most important change from the perspective of a responsible consumer is the revamp of the section that deals with "LCA intended to be used for a comparative assertion intended for public disclosure." Quite a mouthful isn't it? The Committee recognized this, but couldn't find an appropriate acronym. This means that guidelines for LCAs that will be used to compare products and will be shown to the public are clearer. This ensures that results aren't misrepresented, and that publicized LCAs are more reliable. Also, recommendations are now required that are related directly to the study conclusions and requirements are included for better data consistency.

For more information and more specifics on the changes to this standard you can buy them here and you can also buy the article by Finkbeiner et. al. from the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 11 (2) 2006. Finkbeiner, from Chrysler-Daimer AG in Germany, lead the group of 21 international experts that made the changes to the standards. Special thanks to Spanish LCA guru Dr. Pere Fullana for his help in understanding these changes.