What's Green? Distilling Results from Competing Studies

Yale journal publishes special issue on meta-analysis of life cycle assessments

Meta-Analysis of Life Cycle Assessments
Life cycle assessment graphic courtesy of Barbara Reck
The desire to choose greener products, technologies and materials is everywhere. Because they help identify what is environmentally preferable, life cycle assessments (LCAs) have proliferated. LCAs quantify the inputs (raw materials) and outputs (emissions) across the product life cycle­ from raw material extraction to manufacture, to use, and to recycling and disposal.  

As LCAs have become almost commonplace in business and public policy, decision-makers face the need to make sense of multiple and competing environmental analyses.

The application of meta-analysis -- ­a set of techniques used to synthesize results from a body of previous research -- ­to LCA is explored in a special issue of the Journal of Industrial Ecology. The issue includes 12 high-quality meta-analyses and critical reviews of LCAs that advance understanding of the life cycle environmental impacts of various technologies, processes, products and materials. The research presented in the “Meta-Analysis of Life Cycle Assessments” special issue breaks new ground in the synthesis of LCA studies, going beyond the customary practice of producing independent studies on specific products or technologies.

“The application of meta-analysis to life cycle assessment is an important advance,” said Peter Crane, dean of the Yale’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. “Decision-makers seeking to make greener choices need a way to make sense of the enormous amount of information that is coming at them. This can help.”

The special issue includes six studies from the LCA Harmonization Project of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The Harmonization Project conducted screening, review and adjustment of estimates to produce consistent methods and assumptions in thousands of LCAs on electricity-generating technologies. In addition to the harmonization studies, critical reviews were contributed by research teams from across the globe. The result is reviews of:
  • Utility-scale wind power
  • Thin-film photovoltaics (PV)
  • Crystalline silicon photovoltaics (PV)
  • Concentrating solar power
  • Carbon capture and storage (CCS)
  • Nuclear power
  • Coal power
  • Desktop computers and printers
  • Biobased materials

“More than 1,500 studies were reviewed in the preparation of papers in the special issue.” said Reid Lifset, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Industrial Ecology. “The scope of these syntheses is staggering and provides real insight into what can be done with the burgeoning research literature in life cycle assessment.”

The Journal of Industrial Ecology is a peer-reviewed, international bimonthly journal that examines the relationship between industry and the environment from the perspective of the growing field of industrial ecology. It is owned by Yale University, headquartered at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and published by Wiley-Blackwell.

Articles in the special issue are free on the Web at http://jie.yale.edu/LCA-meta-analysis.
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PUBLISHED: May 7, 2012

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