Highlights of the SETAC Europe 24th annual meeting
On 11-15 May, the SETAC Europe 24th Annual Meeting took place in Basel, Switzerland. This major international conference focuses on the latest developments in many fields of the environmental sciences, including LCA.
As we expected, the conference provided an interesting overview of recent developments in LCA. For those of you who didn’t have the opportunity to join in the excitement, I’d like to share some of my personal highlights with you.
Impressive Developments in Impact Assessment Methods
For most LCA practitioners, selecting the impact assessment method they want to use is simply a matter of clicking the right buttons in SimaPro. To make that possible, a lot of work is still being done developing these methods, especially by adding to and fine-tuning their characterisation factors. A big topic at the LCA sessions was the advancement of impact assessment methods. We saw presentations about the impressive developments in the characterisation of particulate matter, metals in coastal seawater and water flows, including evaporation. These new factors, once finalised and publically available, could help us achieve more detailed and reliable LCA results.
In addition, a discussion was raised about the commonly accepted approach of using Global Warming Potential (GWP) as the indicator for climate change. It appears that using the Global Temperature change Potential (GTP) as an indicator may have some advantages over using the GWP. Although we didn’t reach a clear conclusion on which indicator to use, the discussion illustrated the importance of questioning common beliefs and looking at alternatives.
Normalisation On Carrying Capacity to Find Truly Sustainable Solutions
An interesting idea was brought up regarding normalisation, which is the concept of expressing LCA results in figures that can be compared to each other, namely a suggestion to use factors based on the carrying capacity of planet Earth. LCA normally tries to answer the question ‘Which of these options is more sustainable?’ Normalised LCAs based on the planet’s carrying capacity, however, could allow us to answer the question ‘What is actually sustainable?’ One way of doing this might be allocating every person on earth a ‘personal impact budget’ as a normalisation factor, which has very interesting effects on interpretation. Of course, this approach also raises questions, such as ‘What would be the fair share of this personal impact budget for any particular product?’ and ‘Are the consequences of exceeding carrying capacity equally bad for each impact category?’ But despite these questions, the idea is very interesting and I am curious about developments in this area.
How to Teach LCA to Different Audiences
New this year was a session on teaching LCA. This is a personal interest of mine, since I regularly teach people how to do LCA and how to use the SimaPro software. Several interesting presentations approached the topic from different angles, such as teaching at universities or within companies. A noticeable trend was the increasing agreement that learning LCA is best done in practice, using a project-based approach with practical case studies. This allows the teacher to become a coach, supporting the students while they experience the typical challenges of LCA, instead of being a teacher, telling students how things work while they don’t understand the applications yet. The session also discussed the clear need to adapt the education materials to the target group. People working in industry have different goals for doing LCA than researchers, for example, even though both groups will want to learn relevant skills while working on relevant cases.
A Discussion on Ethics to Help Prevent Shifting Problems
Finally, I was pleasantly surprised when I walked into a workshop on ethics in sustainability. The experience was very enlightening, making me aware that it is all too easy to dive into the details of modelling approaches and characterisation factors, while losing track of the bigger picture. While this is a natural effect of specialisation, it is a big issue. Sustainability is something we call a ‘wicked problem’, meaning that focusing on improving only one part is likely to result in a deterioration in another part. And this effect is often ignored. We don’t think it is our responsibility, because we are all focused on doing our jobs to the best of our capabilities. Of course, this won’t provide a good solution for the whole system. This is where ethics come in, since it can be considered unethical to simply shift a problem to someone else. The tricky thing is that not taking the big picture into account will allow these shifts to occur even with the best intentions. The people from XSET Games developed an interesting serious game to illustrate this, letting the participants experience the ‘tragedy of the commons’ first-hand.
All in all, it was a great meeting, packed with new developments and learning moments. I am looking forward to seeing the new developments being implemented by the LCA community, and can hardly wait for next year’s session.
My background in industrial design made it clear to me that the current system of consumption and disposal cannot be maintained in the long run. I quickly became interested in quantifying sustainability, so that well-supported decisions can be made in our move towards a more sustainable world. LCA provides the ability to focus on the facts.