The LCA Community uses a number of terms and acronyms that can be confusing or even overwhelming. This section is designed to demystify common terminology. See the Introduction to LCA for a full description of Life Cycle Assessment and its techniques, or explore the associated terminology using the hot links below:

If you think we’ve missed something, please email us at info@lcanz.org.nz and we’ll add it to the list.

Carbon Footprint

A carbon footprint assesses the life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of goods and services (collectively referred to as “products”) based on key life cycle assessment techniques and principles.

ISO 14067:2018 defines a carbon footprint as the “sum of greenhouse gas emissions and greenhouse gas removals in a product system, expressed as CO2 equivalents and based on a life cycle assessment using the single impact category of climate change.

The CO2 equivalent of a specific amount of a greenhouse gas is calculated as the mass of a given greenhouse gas multiplied by its global warming potential.”

Like an LCA, all life cycle stages are included; from resource extraction, manufacturing and use, through to disposal or recycling.

The key difference to an LCA is that a Carbon Footprint assesses only a single environmental impact category (Global Warming Potential), and does not assess other potential environmental impacts, such as non-greenhouse gas emissions, acidification, eutrophication, toxicity, biodiversity, or any other social and economic factors.

Specific guidelines for Carbon Footprinting are currently provided in ISO 14067:2018 – which can be purchased here: https://www.iso.org/standard/71206.html

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Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is the quantitative evaluation of the environmental impacts of a product or service system through all stages of its life. See the Introduction to LCA for more detail.
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Life Cycle Costing (LCC)

Life Cycle Costing (LCC) refers to the economic aspects along the life cycle of a product or service. This can be combined with an Environmental Life Cycle Assessment.
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Life Cycle Inventory Analysis (LCI)

The ‘life cycle inventory’ is the result of the second step of an LCA. All inputs and outputs related to a product are collated in this step. Inputs and outputs are in this case defined as ‘interventions with the environment’ this means that inputs are resources and outputs would be emissions to air, water and soil. The inventory would for example quantify all greenhouse gas emissions related to a product, e.g. 2 kg of carbon dioxide, 0.5 kg of methane etc.
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Life Cycle Management (LCM)

Life Cycle Management (LCM) is the integration of life cycle thinking strategies into business practice or policy making with the aim to continuously improve a product system, or policy development processes. An example would be the implementation of recommendations from an LCA study into a production process.

LCM is not a single tool or methodology but describes a framework for organisations to structure activities and product-related information to improve product environmental sustainability. A range of tools and approaches may be used in LCM implementation including for example: LCA, eco labels, corporate sustainability reporting, environmental management systems.

For further information see A Guide to Life Cycle Management and Life Cycle Management Briefing
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Water Footprint

The water footprint is an indicator for the total water use of the life cycle of a product.
Like a full LCA or a carbon footprint this includes water used in the manufacturing processes as well as in the use phase of a product.
The ISO standard for water footprinting can be found here: https://www.iso.org/standard/43263.html
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Carbon Dioxide equivalent (CO2e)

Carbon dioxide equivalent is a standard unit for measuring global warming potential or carbon footprint.
ISO 14067:2018 defines a CO2 equivalent unit as a “unit for comparing the radiative forcing of a greenhouse gas to that of carbon dioxide.”
Each greenhouse gas has unique properties, including the amount of warming that they cause and the length of time they remain in the atmosphere before being broken down. The carbon dioxide equivalent allows us to express the impact of each different greenhouse gas in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide that would create the same amount of warming. All these impacts can then be summed up to give a single number .
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Circular Economy

A circular economy is a sustainable, viable and low carbon alternative to a traditional linear economy (take-make-dispose). See LCA and Circular Economy for more details.
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Greenhouse Gas (GHG)

A greenhouse gas is a gas that contributes to the greenhouse effect by absorbing infrared radiation. There are a number of greenhouse gases, both natural and caused by human activity.

In the context of life cycle assessment, we focus on the GHGs arising from human activity as listed in the Kyoto Protocol: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N20), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulphur hexaflouride (SF6).
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Greenhouse gas accounting

Greenhouse gas accounting refers to the greenhouse gas emissions related to a specific company, or even a country. The most common framework for GHG accounting is provided by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol.
Although the term is often wrongly confused with LCA or carbon footprinting, greenhouse gas accounting is not used to define the GHG emissions associated with the life cycle of a product or service.
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Life Cycle Interpretation

The interpretation is the phase of a life cycle assessment in which the findings of the life cycle inventory analysis and the life cycle impact assessment are evaluated in order to reach conclusions and recommendations. The scope of the interpretation will depend on the aim of the study.

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Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA)

Following collation of the life cycle inventory, the impact assessment translates the individual inventory items into environmental impacts using a common unit.

A carbon footprint is the outcome of an impact assessment for the single environmental impact category of Global Warming Potential, translating the quantities of greenhouse gas emissions into a single value in carbon dioxide equivalents.

A typical LCA includes a number of environmental impact categories to provide a holistic view of a product. Typical environmental impact categories include acidification potential,  eutrophication potential (nutrient enrichment), abiotic depletion potential (the use of finite resources), and photochemical ozone creation potential (e.g. ‘summer smog’). The impact categories used in a given LCA study will depend on the type of product being assessed, it’s likely impacts, and the aim of the study.

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Life Cycle Thinking (LCT)

Life Cycle Thinking is an environmental management approach based on taking a holistic whole life cycle approach to product and service systems. A whole life cycle approach extends from raw materials extraction and processing through to product manufacture, delivery, use, and finally on to waste management and recycling. This is often referred to as a “cradle to grave” or a “cradle to cradle” approach.

The advantage of Life Cycle Thinking is that strategies for environmental improvement, may integrate strategies for consumption, production as well as end of life, therefore preventing a piecemeal approach. Taking a life cycle approach also avoids improving environmental impacts at one stage of the life cycle, but unintentionally creating environmental impacts in another stage of the life cycle, or shifting impacts from one geographic area to another, or from one environmental medium to another, so called “problem shifting”.

Life Cycle Thinking refers to the mainly qualitative concept of identifying the stages of the life cycle and/or the potential environmental impacts of greatest significance. This can be used in early stages of a design brief or in an introductory discussion of policy measures. Following a qualitative Life Cycle Thinking, a quantitative approach such as Life Cycle Assessment could then be used to further investigate, or substantiate the findings from Life Cycle Thinking.

For information on how life cycle thinking can help change the economy, see Benefits of Life Cycle Approaches
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