The ILCD format – solving LCA data exchange problems

The International Life Cycle Data System (ILCD) is becoming an important format for the LCA community. This data format allows users to exchange data that was previously thought incompatible, bringing many more datasets, models and methods within reach of LCA practitioners. This is a central issue for the LCA community and increasingly important in the context of the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) initiative. Because the ILCD format is very complex, we will use this article to help you become familiar with the basics of ILCD and how to use it for database development.

Reducing the challenges of sharing

LCA practitioners face many challenges when sharing life cycle inventories (LCI) and models. Although the ISO 1404 and 14044 framework is a solid basis for LCA, it leaves experts, practitioners and data developers with many choices that can be interpreted in different ways. This leads to differences in consistency, reliability and comparability of the results of an assessment. On top of this, there are more than six data formats currently used for LCA, which tends to limit the exchange of databases and models to people using the same software tools.

To facilitate the exchange of environmental information and create a common basis for consistent, robust and quality-assured life cycle data, the European Commission – under the European Platform on Life Cycle Assessment – developed the International Life Cycle Data System (ILCD).

PEF developments and new databases

Although the ILCD format has been around since 2005, ILCD has recently received a big impulse because this data format was used as part of the remodelling phase of the PEF initiative. During this phase, several software providers worked together to test and develop tools for the exchange of information in ILCD format. New conversion tools, correspondence tables and data management tools have all been developed to convert datasets from native LCA software formats such as ecospold, SimaPro and openLCA. Now, the LCA community has a universal format that allows practitioners to translate LCI from formats that were thought to be incompatible before.

The availability of databases developed in the ILCD format is only growing:

  • European Life Cycle Database (one of the earlier databases; updates for this database stopped on June 2018)
  • European research projects
  • Governmental databases, for example, the Malaysian National Database, the Thai National Database, the Italian National LCI Database, etc.
  • ACYVIA, the French National LCA database that is currently being developed by the French environmental agency ADEME
  • Plastics Europe database
  • Environmental Footprint (EF) database

In addition, several databases have been converted from SimaPro to ILCD or vice versa. Some of them are already in the SimaPro Libraries, such as industry data and the ELCD. Others are available on repositories of the ILCD network, called nodes, and can be converted for use within SimaPro.

How does ILCD work?

ILCD consists of several documents and tools to help LCA practitioners develop of software-independent LCA models and databases. It is an XML-based format with eight available dataset types for the elements in the database. The dataset types of the ILCD format are:

  1. Process. This includes the input and output flows for a system or unit process. It also includes documentation and optionally the impact assessment results for a specific method.
  2. Flow. Each flow dataset corresponds to an elementary substance, product or waste flow. This includes information such as the name of the flow, its CAS number, classification, flow property, etc.
  3. Flow Property. This provides the quantity of a flow, for example, mass.
  4. Unit Group. This describes the unit or dimension from a flow property, for example, kg.
  5. LCIA method. This includes all characterisation factors and categories required to calculate the environmental impacts. It also includes documentation of the method.
  6. Source. This contains reference information used in the documentation of the datasets, for example, literature or database references, links to other documents, diagrams, etc.
  7. Contact. This element contains information of persons and institutions involved in the development of the database, its reviewers, etc.
  8. Life cycle model. This contains information for linking processes to create a full LCA model, for example, the connection between processes, parameter overrides and documentation at the model level. This dataset type is part of the extended format (eILCD) introduced in 2018.
Model of an ILCD database and all its elements and links.

Each dataset corresponds to a file and has a Unique Universal Identifier (UUID). This way, different instances can be linked to each other and form a complete and documented LCA model. The UUID also allows users to update specific elements without creating redundant information or re-issuing a new version of the complete model as long as the UUIDs are maintained and the versioning is correctly updated.

To create a database, users have to create all these elements and place them in a series of folders, which is called a package. Because the format is software-independent, the ILCD packages can be read by a basic text editor, ILCD-specific tools or LCA software.

The European Commission has issued several packages containing background datasets to be used in the development of databases in ILCD format. Each package contains datasets that are not usually updated or do not have to be created every time a new model or database is developed, for example, elementary flows, flow properties and unit groups. The two main packages supported by the European Commission are the ELCD package and the EF package (version 3.0).

Converting your own databases to and from ILCD

The export function from SimaPro converts dataset into ILCD using a basic mapping. Afterwards, you can add the entry-level documentation in an XML editor.

If you would like some help or have a specific ILCD database to convert – to and from SimaPro – we can support you with that. Just get in touch!

More information about the ILCD from the European Platform on Life Cycle Assessment can be found on the website or in the ILCD handbook.

Elsa Valencia

LCA Data Expert

I believe we all have expertise that we can use to do something to improve our relationship with the world, and that we need to use scientific methods and tools that objectively guide us when making decisions. Sustainability and sustainability metrics have been the main topic of my career. I enjoy helping clients from different backgrounds and regions to understand how they can tackle today’s challenges with integrated tools that go beyond only technical solutions.

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