It’s a simple concept that is rarely utilized in Canada today: incorporating lifecycle analysis (LCA) into planning and design. Evaluating the full impacts of a project or product throughout construction, operational use and eventual decommissioning/disposal would go a long way to promoting sustainable development in Canada. Unfortunately, many planning decisions are short-sighted and focus instead on the construction and operation aspects, while decommissioning and remediation are left as an afterthought. Lifecycle analysis used to be a significant component of federal environmental assessments for large projects, but now that the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act has been gutted we need an appropriate LCA policy to fill that gap.
In its 2012 report, Canada’s Opportunity: Adopting Life Cycle Approaches to Sustainable Development, the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy (NRTEE) engaged business leaders, federal politicians and experts to develop policy recommendations for LCA. The NRTEE discovered that lifecycle analysis is gaining importance in both private and public sectors, and while the private sector is leading the way, “efforts in Canada related to LCA are fragmented and lack an overall vision or framework to guide their application in a consistent manner.”
Not surprisingly, Europe is the world leader in adopting LCA, although the NRTEE report notes that the US has seen increased adoption rates in recent years. As Canada’s biggest trading partner this is an important development, especially as the Harper government moves to align Canada’s environmental policies with Barack Obama’s. The report recommends that the federal government increase LCA awareness and knowledge, collaborate with the private sector and show leadership.
Currently that leadership is almost non-existent. As with many other environmental issues, the government is content to let the private sector voluntarily lead the way with little regulatory oversight. Environment Canada has a lifecycle assessment guidebook for business that was last updated in 2009. Interestingly the National Energy Board (NEB) has a detailed webpage for LCA, including this flowchart for NEB regulated facilities. Given that the NEB is now tasked with reviewing infrastructure projects such as the Northern Gateway pipeline, this could be seen as a positive development. However, the review panels have been called a sham by critics and unfortunately there seems to be a lack of LCA in practice.
But as the NRTEE recommends, Canada will have to act soon to better incorporate LCA into public policy. National trade will be increasingly affected as governments worldwide move on the issue. For example, the European Union is launching a pilot project in 2013 to incorporate lifecycle assessments on an EU-wide level. This will inevitably lead to new regulations for business such as product labelling and increased disclosure of environmental impacts, and Canadian companies could be put at a disadvantage if they don’t follow suit.
Whether the government likes it or not Canada will soon have to develop a national public policy and build knowledge for lifecycle planning approaches. Luckily the private sector has taken some voluntary steps, and standardized guidelines exist for applying LCA (for example the ISO 14040: LCA Principals and Framework standard, which compliments the well-known ISO 14001 environmental management system standard).
Consumers ultimately hold the key to LCA adoption, and educating the public will help with environmental decision making. LCA can be included in many aspects of daily life and helps bring environmental issues to the individual level.
With Christmas rapidly approaching, perhaps the best demonstration of an individual LCA decision is the classic debate between artificial and real Christmas trees – which is better, environmentally-speaking? Fortunately, the American Christmas Tree Association published a report titled Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of an Artificial Christmas Tree and a Natural Christmas Tree (you can read the report or a summary) which presents a very detailed analysis of all relevant environmental impacts.
Over the long term, artificial trees are more eco-friendly than real ones, although for single use the natural tree is the clear winner (more pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing the artificial tree). It’s a relatively simple analysis and serves to highlight the usefulness of lifecycle analysis in planning and decision making. It will be advantageous to follow the EU approach and see where the future of sustainable development may be headed.
In the Current Events blog, Andrew Reeves and Dan Beare discuss a wide array of environmental issues across the country and around the world, from politics and public policy to energy, natural resources, and environmental science.
Dan is an environmental professional currently living in Toronto. He specializes in energy, transportation, and climate change policy, corporate sustainability, and environmental planning and assessments. He recently completed a Masters of Environmental Applied Science and Management at Ryerson University. Dan's posts usually appear bi-weekly on Fridays.
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