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WHAT CAN META-ANALYSES TELL US ABOUT THE RELIABILITY OF LIFE CYCLE ASSESSMENT FOR DECISION SUPPORT?



The body of life cycle assessment (LCA) literature is vast and has grown over the last decade at a dauntingly rapid rate. Many LCAs have been published on the same or very similar technologies or products, in some cases leading to hundreds of publications. One result is the impression among decision makers that LCAs are inconclusive, owing to perceived and real variability in published estimates of life cycle impacts. Despite the extensive available literature and policy need formore conclusive assessments, only modest attempts have been made to synthesize previous research. A significant challenge to doing so are differences in characteristics of the considered technologies and inconsistencies in methodological choices (e.g., system boundaries, coproduct allocation, and impact assessment methods) among the studies that hamper easy comparisons and related decision support. An emerging trend is meta-analysis of a set of results from LCAs, which has the potential to clarify the impacts of a particular technology, process, product, or material and produce more robust and policy-relevant results. Meta-analysis in this context is defined here as an analysis of a set of published LCA results to estimate a single or multiple impacts for a single technology or a technology category, either in a statisticalmore » sense (e.g., following the practice in the biomedical sciences) or by quantitative adjustment of the underlying studies to make them more methodologically consistent. One example of the latter approach was published in Science by Farrell and colleagues (2006) clarifying the net energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of ethanol, in which adjustments included the addition of coproduct credit, the addition and subtraction of processes within the system boundary, and a reconciliation of differences in the definition of net energy metrics. Such adjustments therefore provide an even playing field on which all studies can be considered and at the same time specify the conditions of the playing field itself. Understanding the conditions under which a meta-analysis was conducted is important for proper interpretation of both the magnitude and variability in results. This special supplemental issue of the Journal of Industrial Ecology includes 12 high-quality metaanalyses and critical reviews of LCAs that advance understanding of the life cycle environmental impacts of different technologies, processes, products, and materials. Also published are three contributions on methodology and related discussions of the role of meta-analysis in LCA. The goal of this special supplemental issue is to contribute to the state of the science in LCA beyond the core practice of producing independent studies on specific products or technologies by highlighting the ability of meta-analysis of LCAs to advance understanding in areas of extensive existing literature. The inspiration for the issue came from a series of meta-analyses of life cycle GHG emissions from electricity generation technologies based on research from the LCA Harmonization Project of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), a laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy, which also provided financial support for this special supplemental issue. (See the editorial from this special supplemental issue [Lifset 2012], which introduces this supplemental issue and discusses the origins, funding, peer review, and other aspects.) The first article on reporting considerations for meta-analyses/critical reviews for LCA is from Heath and Mann (2012), who describe the methods used and experience gained in NREL’s LCA Harmonization Project, which produced six of the studies in this special supplemental issue. Their harmonization approach adapts key features of systematic review to identify and screen published LCAs followed by a meta-analytical procedure to adjust published estimates to ones based on a consistent set of methods and assumptions to allow interstudy comparisons and conclusions to be made. In a second study on methods, Zumsteg and colleagues (2012) propose a checklist for a standardized technique to assist in conducting and reporting systematic reviews of LCAs, including meta-analysis, that is based on a framework used in evidence-based medicine. Widespread use of such a checklist would facilitate planning successful reviews, improve the ability to identify systematic reviews in literature searches, ease the ability to update content in future reviews, and allow more transparency of methods to ease peer review and more appropriately generalize findings. Finally, Zamagni and colleagues (2012) propose an approach, inspired by a meta-analysis, for categorizing main methodological topics, reconciling diverging methodological developments, and identifying future research directions in LCA.


WHAT CAN META-ANALYSES TELL US ABOUT THE RELIABILITY OF LIFE CYCLE ASSESSMENT FOR DECISION SUPPORT?


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All Project Materials Inc. (2020). WHAT CAN META-ANALYSES TELL US ABOUT THE RELIABILITY OF LIFE CYCLE ASSESSMENT FOR DECISION SUPPORT?. Available at: https://allprojectmaterials.com/department/paper-8715.html. [Accessed: ].

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