On developing globally relevant LCA databases

As LCA becomes a more globally important and accepted way of measuring our environmental impacts and quantifying sustainability in business, we will have to face our many problems.

Production processes are global and the LCA of such production processes should also be global. In reality, LCA data is stored in different silos that are not connected. Europe has traditionally been the source of most data, but how relevant is that when we realized that Europe has outsourced much of its production to China? There is also quite some data in Japan and in the US, but these regions, too, have outsourced production to China.

Sustainability In Business Is Not A Local Affair

We need databases that are truly representative of the global situation, and we need those databases to be available to all without having to rebuild them to fit the local format. To establish global standards on nomenclature, formatting and data interpretation, we might need a global, intergovernmental agreement. And to work towards such an agreement, we should start by aligning with one of the most important economies in the world: China.

China ranks number 1 in global COD and SO2 production and produces 61% of concrete and 47% of steel globally. A large percentage of its production output will be used outside of the country, potentially impacting LCAs worldwide. As LCA experts in the Western hemisphere, we must seek collaboration and alignment with China sooner rather than later.

Two things have led me to think about this problem in the recent past.

Workshop on Database Development in China

I recently went to China, for my second workshop on databases and key applications. It was organized by Hongtao Wang from IKE and the Chinese Institute of Electronics, hosted under UNEP/SETAC LC-initiative, and sponsored by Lenovo, the EU, PRé and the Chinese CNPC.

I learned that in China, broadly speaking, there are three life cycle inventory (LCI) databases, one each from:

  • IKE, the workshop organizer, whose approach is similar to ecoinvent’s. Before creating the database, they carefully analyzed what core processes are needed for most other processes, and they built up their database starting with that core. IKE developed some very interesting and innovative approaches regarding data quality management and documentation.
  • The Beijing University of Technology (BJUT), who developed a database based on data from Chinese Companies. BJUT and PRé have been collaborating for many years, and we are hoping to release this database soon. It has already been converted to the SimaPro format.
  • The Chinese Academy of Sciences, who used SimaPro to develop an impressive database based on the ecoinvent unit process database. They have adjusted the most important processes in ecoinvent to make them more in line with Chinese conditions.

As you can see, a lot of data on Chinese production processes is being gathered. While that’s great, unfortunately, none of these results are available to sustainability professionals yet.

International Alignment to Streamline LCA Database Development

During the workshop, I found that many people were interested in the EU Product and Organisational Environmental Footprint pilot (PEF/OEF) for which PRé is one of the three helpdesk consultants. The project intends to create a standardized environmental footprint methodology, that can be used to compare similar products and companies. Speakers from Thailand, Malaysia, and India all seem to be eager to follow what is going on here and learn from this, as a potential basis for worldwide comparison.

In the slipstream of this EU pilot, the EU helped start an international, intergovernmental alignment process. This intergovernmental alignment might be able to provide guidance on solving the global LCI database development issues, like format and nomenclature, and help understand the mechanisms that could make large amounts of data available. I am strongly in favor of making sure that China and other large, non-Western economies are included in this process.

The EU itself has refocused its International Life Cycle Database (ILCD) initiative and renamed it to the Life Cycle Data Network. Instead of being an EU-led LCI database development project, the Data Network is organized to foster international collaboration. This removes a lot of criticism of the original initiative, as several regions in the world were worried that the EU would one-sidedly set the rules for the entire world.

Solving LCA Database Issues Worldwide

In April 2014, the intergovernmental process will continue in a meeting in Washington DC, USA. This seems like a great window of opportunity to solve some of the problems the LCA community is struggling with, like the multiple global standards for data formats, conflicting nomenclature definitions and a very fragmented landscape of database developers.

PRé will be there as technical experts, and we really hope we can contribute to removing the many hurdles that stand in the way of a truly common understanding of formats, nomenclature and business models. I hope we can all forget the past struggles and look forward to the new opportunities we have to really push LCA into the mainstream. To do that, we need to prove that we are a mature community that can overcome silly divisions on technicalities and get access to increasing amounts of data, especially from countries like China where it’s all happening. My hope is that the DC meeting results in a high-level vision and roadmap that provide guidance on how we can align databases from Europe, Japan and all other areas of the world.

Mark Goedkoop


When I established PRé in 1990 I ran a design consultancy, then I decided to do ecodesign. But, how do I tell the good from the bad? And how can I measure ‘eco’? So I started on a journey together with a few pioneers in the emerging LCA scene and gave up designing. I realized then that these same questions need to be answered by any company embarking on the route to more sustainable products and services, preferably in a scientific, honest, and businesslike way. Providing good transparent tools, data, and methodologies to empower organizations to make the transition to sustainability, that is my drive.

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