Towards prospective life cycle sustainability analysis: exploring complementarities between social and environmental Life Cycle Assessments for the case of Luxembourg’s energy system
B. Rugani, E. Benetto, E. Igos, G. Quinti, A. Declich, and F. Feudo
Matériaux & Techniques, vol. 102, no. 6-7, 2014
Sustainability typically relies on the durable interaction between humans and the environment. Historically, modelling tools such as environmental-life cycle assessment (E-LCA) have been developed to address the mitigation of environmental impacts generated by human activities. More recently, social-life cycle assessment (S-LCA) methods have been proposed to investigate the social sustainability sphere, looking at the life cycle effects generated by positive or negative pressures on social endpoints (i.e. well-being of stakeholders). Despite this promising added value, however, S-LCA methods still show limitations and challenges to be faced, e.g. regarding the lack of high quality datasets and the implementation of consensual social impact assessment indicators. This paper discusses on the complementarity between S-LCA and E-LCA towards the definition of prospective life cycle sustainability analysis (LCSA) approaches. To this aim, a case study is presented comparing (i) E-LCA results of business-as-usual (BAU) scenarios of energy supply and demand technology changes in Luxembourg, up to 2025, based on economic equilibrium modeling and hybrid life cycle inventories, with (ii) a monetary-based input-output estimation of the related changes in the societal sphere. The results show that environmental and social issues do not follow the same impact trends. While E-LCA outputs highlight contrasting patterns, they do generally underlie a relatively low decrease in the aggregated environmental burdens curve (around 20% of decrease over the single-score impact trend over time). In contrast, social hotspots (identified in S-LCA by specific risk indicators of human rights, worker treatment, poverty, etc.) are typically increasing over time according to the growth of the final energy demand. Overall, the case study allowed identifying possible synergies and tradeoffs related to the impact of projected energy demands in Luxembourg. Despite the studied approach does not fully adopt a consequential perspective, it can be considered as a basis to develop a prospective LCSA approach, combining consequential E-LCA and S-LCA. Accordingly, we introduced the concept of “anticipatory experiences” on energy transition towards a low carbon society as drivers for change, observing that societal phenomena characterizing the transition of the energy systems towards lower carbon-related emissions seem to facilitate the identification of actual and potential changes that may take place within these upcoming transition processes. Such phenomena, which are somehow typical, may be used as inputs for S-LCA, so as to better defining the most likely developments of certain intervention/policies in the energy sector and eventually contribute to the definition of prospective and consequential LCSA modelling tools.