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Carbon footprint and LCA: two complementary tools for impact measurement.

Updated: Jan 16

The carbon footprint analysis and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) emerge as indispensable tools for evaluating the environmental impact of a company's activities and products. Going beyond mere measurements, these tools provide the opportunity to implement concrete and impactful sustainable development policies. They constitute the pillars of a proactive approach aimed at quantifying and significantly reducing environmental impact.


These two tools share a common mission: to provide a comprehensive view of environmental repercussions, yet they differ in their methodologies. While the carbon footprint specifically focuses on greenhouse gas emissions, LCA offers a holistic perspective, assessing all environmental impacts throughout the product life cycle.



Carbon footprint and LCA: what are the definitions?


Carbon footprint analysis: Definition and challenges


A carbon footprint is a tool for measuring and quantifying greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from an activity or product. The carbon footprint can be conducted for a company, a product, a service, or an event. It allows for the assessment of an entity's carbon footprint, identifying primary emission sources, establishing action plans to reduce these emissions, and tracking progress over time.


Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are expressed in tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (eqCO2), encompassing carbon dioxide (CO2) and five other gases: methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFC), perfluorocarbons (PFC), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6).


GHG emissions are categorized into three groups called scopes 1, 2 & 3:

  • Scope 1 covers direct emissions, emitted by the entity itself, such as the combustion of fossil fuels for energy production or gas leaks during the production or use of products.

  • Scope 2 encompasses indirect emissions related to energy, for example, electricity purchased by the company or fuel consumption by employees' vehicles.

  • Scope 3 includes other indirect emissions, such as employee travel, goods and services purchased by the company, or emissions related to waste management.

Several methodologies exist for calculating the carbon footprint. The Bilan Carbone® method is the most widely used in France, recognized by the Ministry of Ecological and Solidarity Transition. Two other international methodologies are the GHG Protocol and ISO 14069.


Life Cycle Assessment: Definition and challenges


Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a standardized evaluation method (ISO 14040 and ISO 14044) used to conduct a multi-criteria environmental assessment and quantify the environmental impacts of a product, service, company, or process throughout its life cycle. It aims to understand and compare the environmental impacts of a system from the extraction of raw materials required for manufacturing to its end-of-life treatment (recycling, etc.), including usage, maintenance, and transportation phases.


According to ISO 14040, the steps to conduct an LCA are as follows:


  • Definition of objectives and scope: This step involves specifying the analysis objectives and scope, particularly for what applications (eco-design, comparison, or environmental declaration).

  • Inventory analysis of material flows: This involves analyzing incoming and outgoing material flows at all stages of the product or service life cycle.

  • Evaluation of environmental impacts: This step assesses the potential environmental impacts associated with material and energy flows identified during the inventory analysis.

  • Interpretation of results based on the selected objectives: This final step involves interpreting the results obtained based on the initially defined objectives. It is an iterative step with the previous stages.


LCA allows for the analysis of the environmental footprint, and carbon impacts, and is, therefore, a crucial tool in a company's CSR strategy. It is also a decision-making tool in business, enabling a relevant comparison between different products or services and gradually moving towards eco-design.



What are the differences between LCA and carbon footprint?


The carbon footprint consists of a single criterion study: greenhouse gas emissions. LCA, on the other hand, evaluates the many potential impacts of a product on the environment and society, based on the physical flows of materials and energy associated with it.

Thanks to its single evaluation criterion, the carbon footprint is faster to calculate and easier to interpret. The Life Cycle Assessment is more in-depth and requires a longer study and more work to interpret the results.


lca-carbon-footprint-comparison

What are the objectives of these two tools?


Carbon footprints and LCAs therefore both allow companies to better quantify their environmental and climate impact. At a time when the economy and society are in the midst of an ecological transition, these analysis methods meet several objectives.


Reduce your greenhouse gas emissions


GHGs are responsible for warming the atmosphere. Their concentration in the air has strongly increased since the beginning of the industrial period, which accelerates climate change. Measuring the emissions linked to one's activities allows, first of all, to set up a strategy to reduce one's carbon footprint.


Obtain a quantified basis for designing a sustainable development policy


Carbon footprints and LCAs provide precise data on the environmental impacts of an activity. They can be used as a basis for implementing a real policy of sustainable development: integration of eco-responsible values in the company's strategy, creation of an environmental management system or implementation of specific actions for the environment.


Complying with current and future regulations and standards


In France and Europe, several regulations require the completion of a LCA or a carbon footprint analysis to assess environmental impact. For example, the European Directive 2009/125/EC mandates an LCA for the eco-design of energy-consuming products such as televisions and dishwashers. In France, the Grenelle II law obliges companies to carry out a Regulatory Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory to evaluate their emissions.


At the European level, the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), in effect since 2024, strengthens transparency obligations for companies. It expands the scope of extra-financial reporting to nearly 50,000 affected European companies. The CSRD specifically mandates the completion of a carbon footprint, in addition to other disclosure requirements for environmental, social, and governance (ESG) data.


Why are carbon footprint and LCA Complementary?


While a carbon footprint analysis is mandatory for some companies and available to all those looking to measure their ecological impact, it stands out as the "easiest" lever to implement. With data standardized in carbon equivalents, it is easily readable and allows for prompt action in reducing greenhouse gases.


Nevertheless, caution is required to determine the steps to avoid impact transfers. It is entirely possible to decrease the carbon footprint of a product while increasing its environmental impact in areas beyond greenhouse gases. This is where the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) comes into play as a complementary tool, providing a more detailed analysis of the environmental impacts of products and activities, although it requires more time for result interpretation


From the extraction of materials necessary for manufacturing to end-of-life treatment (recycling, landfill, etc.), spanning production, transport, and use, every product or service exerts an impact on the environment. Both LCA and carbon footprinting assist companies in developing an action plan to curtail pollution, preserve natural resources, and mitigate global warming. Such actions become imperative in the face of the escalating climate emergency awareness.

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