Life cycle assessment allows you to accurately compare like-for-like impacts
There is a sea of environmental reporting standards across all industry sectors. With the mining industry investing time and resources to get proficient with environmental planning, it is easy to get confused about what type of study to complete for a given project. Furthermore, sustainability has become a catchphrase rather than a metric of its definition: meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own.
It can be intimidating to begin a sustainability journey from scratch, but setting up a solid foundation for analyses can ensure environmental credentials are robust for years to come whilst evolving seamlessly alongside project development. Standards or methodologies created for an individual company or project can lead to greenwashing, whether intentional or not. When moving the goalposts of what is or is not included in a model, or when changing the scope of a study with no concrete guidance on parameters, anything can seem sustainable.
Suppose all greenhouse gas scopes aren’t captured, or upstream processes are considered outside a study's boundary, critical environmental hotspots can be ignored, leading to unchecked damage to the biosphere. Every joule of energy, kilogram of reagent, watt-hour of electricity and litre of water used to make a product has an embodied environmental impact and cannot be overlooked when planning for sustainability. In addition, some popular ESG reporting tools can be subjective, making it difficult to truly compare the impacts of one site, process or project to another. For transparency and subsequent understanding of emissions and impacts, projects must be quantified using consistent, science-based (objective), data-driven metrics and methodologies.
Life cycle assessment (LCA) offers global compliance to environmental standards, with the flexibility to adapt to individual project specifications, using material and energy inputs to generate impact insights. It is fast becoming the most prominent tool for characterising decarbonisation technology and their raw material supply chains, as it did in the construction industry.
With a rigorous and defined methodology designed in close alignment with ISO standards, LCA results are repeatable and reliable and can help companies evaluate their product’s environmental footprint through its entire life cycle. Ultimately, LCA is a decision-supporting tool and can be used iteratively as part of forward-looking strategies. While ISO has provided good standardisation, LCA is used to study a wide range of systems, with many methodological decisions being made to adapt to each purpose. Minviro’s LCA methodology has been built with mining and metals and battery manufacturing companies at the forefront, ensuring relevant impacts are captured and defined in a consistent manner.
The fundamental idea behind LCA is the avoidance of burden shifting, whether that is shifting to other life cycle stages, outcomes, or geographical regions. Minviro’s LCA methodology, for example, has been developed to be specific to the raw materials sector and is conducted in alignment with GHG Protocol guidelines, incorporating scope segregation recommendations and ISO-compliant reporting standards.
Cradle-to-gate LCA studies include scope 1, scope 2, and upstream scope 3 emissions for global warming potential when quantifying the impact of a product leaving a facility, which are all the responsibility of the producer. The downstream scope 3 emissions can also be included when you want to quantify the impacts of operators and users after your product is sold, defined as a cradle-to-grave study. This means that these studies don’t just investigate from the point of mine resource extraction; they also continue through to the cradle of the electricity generated, the fuel purchased, the reagents consumed, and can even include the mine infrastructure and staff impacts.
LCA is a robust methodology for quantifying these scope 3 impacts, of which the burden is commonly shifted, alongside those from fuel/electricity consumption and direct emissions, which is beyond the capabilities of other environmental assessment methodologies, such as greenhouse gas accounting. Having this quantification accentuates the biggest contributors of environmental burdens, or ‘hot spots’, and allows for the definition and scoping of realistic and tangible pathways to mitigation.
To avoid the shifting of burden, many impact categories exist within the LCA framework, which quantify impacts such as acidification potential, water scarcity footprint, and particulate matter effects. The use of forward-looking LCAs encourages preventative and proactive environmental management of the potential impacts, rather than reactive approaches, when it is often more difficult to make the changes needed.
LCA can be used by industry to compare processes and products that perform the same function in terms of environmental impact - comparing apples-to-apples, as the phrase goes! Drawing meaningful conclusions when comparing environmental impact values generated for a kilogram of copper using two different methodologies is all but impossible, so when each new study in the public uses a different system boundary and calculation approach, the knowledge landscape of raw material sustainability becomes difficult to navigate. Employing robust frameworks with LCA allows for optimum industry-wide alignment on targeting common hotspots to tackle.
For real, impactful mitigation of environmental impacts, without a shift in burden, the path forward must be through quantification of scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions for CO2, alongside a broader set of impact categories. The scientific approach provided by LCA allows for the creation of targets aligned with the Paris Agreement, establishes a shared understanding of commodity impacts with each new study, and is a concrete way to create meaningful and measurable pathways and quantifiable goals to reduce environmental impacts as a society.