We have a vision: trustworthy life cycle information accessible to all
One of the most pressing issues in the LCA community is information exchange and comparability between different LCA software systems. Solving this is the key to make life cycle information easily accessible and transparent to all, meeting the growing need for reliable environmental impact data. It would also make LCA more robust and trustworthy, because actors in the value chain could exchange life cycle information and build on the work done by others. Therefore, PRé welcomed the Remodelling project, funded by the European Commission (EC), as a chance to help make this ambition a reality.
Creating models for representative products and organisations
The Remodelling project was the last stepping stone for concluding the EC’s Environmental Footprint (EF) pilot phase. During the pilot phase, rules were developed for calculating the environmental footprint of products (product environmental footprint category rules or PEFCR) and organisations (organisation environmental footprint sector rules or OEFSR) for various product categories and types of organisations.
The PEFCR and OEFSR documents clearly describe how to calculate the environmental footprint of a product or organisation to help ensure comparability: the required secondary datasets, the default data point values, etc. However, in the end, each LCA expert would still need to use the PEFCR and OEFSR to make a model of a specific product, and in this phase, different tools or different interpretations of the rules in the PEFCR/OEFSR could lead to reduced comparability.
The Remodelling project was intended to make models available for representative products and organisations (RP and RO), to be used by LCA experts as the starting point for their model. The Remodelling project resulted in models for 59 representative products and 4 representative organisations, each following the respective PEFCR and OEFSR.
When I identified the need for this project the situation was close to a Babel’s tower: people, software, datasets, talking about the same reality but using different languages and dictionaries.
Michele Galatola, Senior Policy Officer at the European Commission – DG GROW
Using the Remodelling project as a springboard to get closer to our vision
Before the Remodelling project, the vision of free data sharing faced several challenges:
- Cost. Every LCA expert starts a life cycle model from scratch. There is no repository of models that experts can take as a starting point. This increases the time and investment needed to create the model.
- Interoperability. The life cycle of a product encompasses many stages, and the data needed to evaluate them all often comes from people working in different organisations, possibly using different LCA tools. For instance, an organisation using the GaBi tool might need data from a supplier using SimaPro and, in turn, is requested to provide data to a customer that uses openLCA. Supplier-specific data is essential for a good product life cycle assessment. However, each of these tools has its own data format that cannot easily be read by the others.
- Comparability. Models in different LCA software tools might return different results, even if they use the same primary input data, the same list of secondary datasets and the same impact assessment method. This is a challenge for comparability and reproducibility, and thus the credibility and maturity of LCA.
We will only be able to truly scale up the use of life cycle information after these challenges have been overcome. While the primary goal of the Remodelling project was to make the representative product and organisation models available, the LCA community took the opportunity to go deeper.
A collective effort toward the greater good
The Remodelling project was the perfect opportunity to collaborate with all the major consultancies and software providers to:
- Make RP and RO models available in a consistent way to any user of the major existing LCA software, significantly reducing the costs of calculating the environmental footprint of a product or organisation
- Standardise the calculation of the environmental footprint of products and organisations to ensure comparability
- Identify – and solve – any issues between software systems to exchange and guarantee comparability
Putting all competitors around the table was essential to make this project possible. This project tested for the first time the real exchange of datasets among software and made clear that a common format and language needs further development. This is essential for the future of the EF work (to allow fair comparisons).
An De Schryver, Policy officer at the European Commission – DG ENV
Parties involved: Blonk Consultants, GreenDelta, IFU, maki Consulting, PRé, RDC Environment, Quantis, thinkstep and VITO; with PRé as project coordinator.
LCA tools covered: GaBi, openLCA, RangeLCA, SimaPro and Umberto. Since some of these parties are competitors, this was already a remarkable achievement. All partners joined forces and collaborated pre-competitively, knowing that something much bigger than the project-specific objectives was at stake. Our shared ambition was to enable interoperability between LCA software tools by identifying and solving issues in the way they work, and by providing modelling instructions and an improved format.
So, how did we do?
During the Remodelling project, the consortium made huge strides towards our vision. Let’s run by each of the challenges.
Cost: Is it now cheaper to create an LCA model?
The goal of the Remodelling project was to make standard models available as a jumping-off point for LCA experts. With 63 models currently released and more to come at a later stage, the consortium is very happy with this result.
Interoperability: Are models usable in different LCA software tools?
The answer is almost, but certainly closer than ever before. During the project, we created a list of features that are incompatible between software tools, such as plans from GaBi, product stages from SimaPro, statistical distribution in RangeLCA, and only input quantitative reference in openLCA, to name a few. These features were banned from use in the Remodelling project, to ensure comparability. This was crucial to being able to exchange the models between software tools.
Another challenge was that each LCA software tool has its own internal format, meaning that one cannot easily exchange data from one software to another. Translation between formats is not straightforward. The ILCD format was developed by the EC around 2005, but this does not support model information, only aggregated datasets (or, in SimaPro terminology, system processes).
The Remodelling consortium now developed an extension to the ILCD format: extended ILCD (eILCD). This was designed to carry model information and thereby support model exchange. During the project, all models were delivered in eILCD format. However, only some could be successfully exchanged between software tools. There were still software-specific differences that hindered the complete and successful import of the models.
Comparability: Is it now possible to achieve the same results in different tools?
For all aggregated datasets, including those developed for the representative products, all five software tools involved in the project ultimately calculated the exact same results. However, this was not the case from the start, so we had to discuss what was causing the original differences. Some key aspects to ensure comparability:
- The datasets had to be in ILCD format, all using the same EF reference package, i.e. the same list of elementary flows and units
- The impact assessment method used had to be the same in all software tools; this also used the same EF reference package
- The results calculated with the EC tool Look@LCI had to be leading.
This is a remarkable achievement! It is the first time in LCA history that different LCA software developers have calculated and compared results of datasets to make sure that all got equal results.
For the fully disaggregated models (or, in SimaPro terminology, unit processes) per RP, we were less successful. These models were in eILCD format and all used the same EF reference package, but only some could be successfully imported in other software tools and even less provided equal impact assessment results.
My personal reflections
In summary, we’re not there yet. There are technical constraints, because some features must be avoided to ensure interoperability. That means only relatively simple models can be exchanged in an automated manner. To ensure comparability, availability of a unique reference package and a single and compatible impact assessment method is crucial, as well as a set of correctly calculated results that serve as control.
I think a collaborative, sharing approach is essential to achieve successful exchange of data and models and reproducibility of results across software tools. That is why we are continuing with the collaboration, e.g. through participation in the Data Working Group of the EF transition phase. But like the stated goal of the Remodelling project was a kick-off to tackle more comprehensive goals, I believe that working toward the vision of open, shared data should take on a life of its own, beyond the scope of the Environmental Footprint Initiative.
The time of the industrial revolution is over. Now it is time for the green revolution to go full steam ahead! Everybody needs to be involved in this process, therefore I aim to guide individuals and businesses in understanding the trade-offs between impacts. This will help them make informed decisions, which will truly help sustainable living thrive."