What is an LCA? (Life Cycle Assessment)

Sander Palm



An LCA maps the climate and environmental impact associated with all stages of a product's life cycle.

What is an LCA? (Life Cycle Assessment)

Life Cycle Assessment, often abbreviated as LCA, is a methodology used to assess the environmental impacts associated with all stages of a product's life cycle - from raw material extraction through production and use to disposal or recycling. The purpose of LCA is to gain a holistic view of a product's overall environmental impact and make more sustainable choices.

History and development

The LCA concept was developed in the 1960s and 1970s in response to increasing environmental awareness. In the 1990s, the methodology was standardized through international standards, specifically the ISO 14040 series, which defines the principles and framework for conducting an LCA.

How to do an LCA: The four phases

A life cycle assessment (LCA) consists of four main stages, each of which plays a crucial role in assessing a product's overall environmental impact. Here is an in-depth look at each phase:

1. Definition of goals and scope

Purpose:This phase establishes the framework for the analysis and defines what is to be achieved. It identifies the specific objectives, such as reducing environmental impacts, product improvement or meeting regulatory requirements.


  • System boundaries: Determines which life cycle stages are included in the analysis (e.g. raw material extraction, production, use and end-of-life).
  • Functional unit: Defines the quantitative unit of measurement to which environmental impacts are related (e.g. 1 kg of a product, service over a certain time horizon).
  • Assumptions and limitations: Specifies the assumptions underlying the analysis and any limitations in data or methodology.

2. Life Cycle Inventory (LCI) Analysis

Data collection: This phase involves systematically collecting data on all inputs and outputs throughout the product lifecycle. This includes:

  • Material consumption: The amount and type of raw materials used.
  • Energy: Types and amounts of energy used in different phases of the lifecycle.
  • Emissions: Emissions to air, water and land, including greenhouse gases, chemicals and other pollutants.
  • Waste management: The amount and type of waste generated and how it is managed (recycling, landfill, incineration).

Data sources:Data can come from direct measurements, literature, databases or estimates based on similar processes.

3. Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA)

Categorization of environmental impacts: Data collected from the LCI phase is translated into potential environmental impacts, which can include:

  • Global warming: Contribution to the greenhouse effect measured in CO₂ equivalents.
  • Acidification: Emission of acid rain-causing substances such as SO₂ and NOₓ.
  • Eutrophication: The over-fertilization of aquatic environments caused by the discharge of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus.
  • Ozone layer depletion: The release of ozone-depleting substances such as CFCs.

Impact assessment: The quantitative data on environmental impacts is assessed and weighted to provide an overall view of a product's environmental profile. This may involve using models and methods to quantify the relative contributions of different impact categories.

4. Interpretation

Analysis and conclusions: The results from the LCIA phase are interpreted to understand which life cycle stages and processes contribute most to environmental impacts. Data quality and methodology are critically evaluated to ensure accuracy and reliability.

Identification of improvement opportunities: Based on the analysis, areas where environmental impacts can be reduced are identified. This may include changes in material selection, process optimization, increased energy efficiency or improved waste management.

Communicating results: The results are communicated to relevant stakeholders, which can be internal decision makers, customers, politicians or the public. The aim is to promote sustainable practices and make informed decisions.

Comparison and sensitivity analysis: It can also be useful to perform comparisons between different scenarios or products and conduct sensitivity analysis to understand how changes in assumptions and data affect results.

Application of LCA

LCA is used in many different contexts:

  • Product development: To design more sustainable products by identifying and reducing environmental impacts.
  • Ecolabels and certificates: To obtain ecolabels such as the Nordic Swan Ecolabel or EU Ecolabel, which require documentation of a product's environmental impact.
  • Policy development: To inform policy makers about the environmental consequences of different legislative measures.
  • Corporate strategy: To integrate sustainability into the company's overall strategy and reporting.

Benefits and challenges of LCA


  • Holistic perspective: LCA provides a holistic view of environmental impacts throughout the life cycle, helping to avoid shifting environmental impacts from one phase to another.
  • Decision support: LCA provides valuable data to decision makers on where resources and efforts can best be targeted to achieve sustainable results.
  • Improved reputation: Companies can use LCA to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability, which can improve their reputation with customers and investors.


  • Data collection: Gathering comprehensive and accurate data for all stages of a product's lifecycle can be time consuming and expensive.
  • Complexity: LCA can be complex to perform correctly, requiring expertise and experience to ensure reliable results.
  • Methodological limitations: There are still some methodological challenges, including how to best assess certain environmental impacts and deal with uncertainty in data.


Life cycle assessment is a powerful tool for understanding and improving the environmental impacts of products and systems. By taking a holistic view of the entire lifecycle, companies, decision makers and designers can make more informed and sustainable decisions. While there are challenges associated with conducting an LCA, these are often outweighed by the many benefits, including better environmental performance and a stronger focus on sustainability.