Comparing Carbon Footprint and Life Cycle Analyses

And How They Can Create Greener Businesses

woman standing with a bike by a painted wall of concrete blocks
•••  Ben Miller, Getty Images

With sustainability claims everywhere, distinguishing between various environmental assessments can be daunting. Life cycle assessments (LCA), carbon footprint analysis, water footprint analysis, CSR reports, VOC testing, environmental risk assessments—the list goes on and on.

Life cycle assessment and carbon footprint analysis are two of the most common evaluations. Both can be helpful in assessing environmental impact and providing a business with information about how to create greener systems. Here are some of the important distinctions of the two assessments.

Carbon Footprint Analysis

A carbon footprint analysis, also known as a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions assessment, evaluates the greenhouse gas emissions caused by the manufacture of a product or any given activity that contributes to global warming. This begins with the assessment of emissions of carbon, sulfur hexafluoride, and methane. These emissions quantities are then converted into carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e).

Three core standards around carbon footprint analysis are the GHG Protocol, ISO/TS 14067, and PAS 2050. The GHG Protocol is the most common international tool used by business leaders and governments to comprehend, quantify, and control GHG emissions. It includes four different standards:

Product Life Cycle Accounting and Reporting Standard: This standard involves understanding GHG emissions related to a specific product, based on raw materials used, production, distribution, and disposal. It's somewhat akin to a Product LCA. 

Corporate Value Chain Accounting and Reporting Standard: This standard is intended for organizations or businesses to evaluate their entire value chain and calculate the environmental impacts of GHG emission throughout the chain. The assessment is aimed at identifying possible ways to lessen GHG emissions.

Project Accounting Protocol and Guidelines: This standard is used to assess the impact of any specific project designed to reduce GHG emissions.

Corporate Accounting and Reporting Standards: This is more or less the same as an organizational LCA. It is intended for organizations and is used to assess GHG emissions from business operations and activities, and to implement plans for reducing emissions.

Everything has a carbon footprint. These assessments are designed to discover that footprint for a product, a production plant, and even an entire company.

Life Cycle Assessments

A life cycle assessment systematically evaluates multiple environmental impacts of a product, activity, or process over its entire life cycle. Carbon footprint analysis is actually a subset of a complete life cycle assessment of a product, activity, or process.

The core standards around LCA are ISO 14044 and ISO 14040. Like a carbon footprint analysis, LCA can be done for a product, service, project, and an organization. The multiple assessment categories under LCA include natural resource depletion, climate change, ecosystem degradation, and human health. 

LCA takes environmental releases—including GHG—and all other material inputs throughout the life cycle into account and assesses all the potential direct and indirect impacts on the environment. Thus, LCA is a multi-criteria analysis that evaluates numerous environmental impacts. On the other hand, carbon footprint analysis is a mono-criterion analysis focused on only one environmental impact: climate change by GHG emission.

Both analyses depend on functional approaches to impact measurement. In effect, a "functional unit," or the quantified environmental impact of a studied product, process, or activity, serves as the foundation for assessment and facilitates comparison between products, processes, activities, or any other above-mentioned items with similar functional units.

These days, there are various online carbon footprint and LCA assessment tools that can be used to discover general information about possible environmental impacts of any product, process, activity, business, or project. Popular calculators are available online for both carbon footprint and LCA. These aren't a substitute for a comprehensive analysis, but they can be useful for a quick overview of your business' environmental impact.