How could an LCA help answer the question “what is the carbon footprint of a purchase or email account?”

Have you ever taken one of those personal carbon footprint calculator quizzes? They calculate the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions based on how you commute, how much you fly, where you get your electricity from, what you buy and what you eat, but what about how you invest and how you store your data? Financial transactions and cloud storage services are just two of the many services that can have significant impact on the environment and are difficult to quantify. I often describe life cycle assessment (LCA) as a process to evaluate the total environmental impacts, like GHG emissions and water from the production, use, transportation and disposal of goods and services. While there is an abundance of LCAs on goods out there, LCA’s of services are rarely done. As a long-time LCA practitioner, I understand that LCAs of services pose a number of challenges and can seem like a daunting task. The fundamentals of an LCA, like the functional unit and system boundary, are hard to define for a service whose lifetime could be nearly infinite or whose geographic boundary includes the entire world.

Still, there are interesting and potentially impactful questions to be answered, such as what is the carbon footprint of a personal purchase? What is the total carbon footprint of all my social media accounts and my email? What are water footprints of these types of services? An LCA that could answer these questions would have to be set up very carefully to address the specifics of the service provider’s company. For example, data centers are needed to manage credit card transactions and to store data. Where the data centers are located determines what electricity grid mix they draw from, which will have an impact on the GHG emissions and water consumption for providing services. Furthermore, if the service-provider has taken steps to reduce the dependence on grid energy, increase renewable energy or reduce energy and water consumption in general, these factors would need to be accounted for in the LCA. A host of other tricky questions related to the LCA would need to be addressed, for example what is the most appropriate unit for comparison for a service? For data storage, it might be a standard unit of data stored, but some companies offer multiple back-ups of data to protect against potential loss. Also, the speed at which data can be accessed is an important variable that would need to be taken into account in the functional unit. For a purchase, how the transaction is carried out (e.g., with a credit card, cash, or check) would factor into the assessment and comparisons. The complexity and variation of services can make correctly defining the functional unit of a service quite tricky.

There are meaningful applications for the results of service LCAs. Increasingly, investors and clients are calling for companies offering these types of services to provide transparency on their GHG emissions and to set meaningful targets towards reductions. Companies are making great strides towards setting targets and reporting GHG emissions and even water use, but these are often done at the company level without attention to the impact level of individual services. In the future, a company may choose a service provider than can demonstrate that the GHG or water impacts of their services are lower than their competitors’ impacts or business as usual impacts. We are already seeing companies reporting the impacts of their products and services, such as in their CDP Supply Chain responses. An example of this is companies using LCA to set an intensity-based target (question CC 3.1b).

If LCA practitioners are too apprehensive about taking on difficult, but meaningful, studies, we will never have the fact-based data needed to back up service comparison claims. As a consumer, this is the kind of information that I want to help me choose service providers whose products align with my commitment to sustainability. LCAs are an opportunity for service providers to take a leadership role in sustainability and earn differentiation in their industry.

Comments are closed.