Water Footprinting: How to Address Water Use in Life Cycle Assessment?

A Water and Marine Sustainability Month Feature Article

Aerated Water - Image Credit Mark Schellhase GNU FDL

[tweetmeme http://www.URL.com]   Markus Berger and Matthias Finkbeiner of the Department of Environmental Technology, Technische Universität Berlin, have published an interesting article titled „Water Footprinting: How to Address Water Use in Life Cycle Assessment?“  The abstract and introduction to their paper reads:

As freshwater is a vital yet often scarce resource, the life cycle assessment community has put great efforts in method development to properly address water use. The International Organization for Standardization has recently even launched a project aiming at creating an international standard for ‘water footprinting’. This paper provides an overview of a broad range of methods developed to enable accounting and impact assessment of water use. The critical review revealed that methodological scopes differ regarding types of water use accounted for, inclusion of local water scarcity, as well as differentiation between watercourses and quality aspects. As the application of the most advanced methods requires high resolution inventory data, the trade-off between ‘precision’ and ‘applicability’ needs to be addressed in future studies and in the new international standard.

Freshwater is a precious resource on our planet. It is crucial to sustain life and cannot be replaced by any other substance. However, freshwater is scarce in some regions, countries, or even continents, leading to manifold problems. With regard to human health, this can include for instance malnutrition due to lack of agricultural irrigation water. Such problems are relevant for about a third of the world‘s population who are threatened by a lack of water to meet daily needs. In terms of ecosystems, water scarcity can affect biodiversity, as sensitive species might not be able to cope with reduced freshwater availability. Hence, freshwater needs to be managed properly in order to achieve the United Nation‘s millennium goals regarding human wellbeing and intact ecosystems. Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a widely accepted and applied environmental management tool to measure the various environmental interventions caused by products from cradle to grave. Yet, when assessing the environmental performance of a product by means of LCA, attention is usually drawn on the energy consumed along a product‘s lifespan or on the emission of greenhouse gases and toxic substances. In contrast, the use of freshwater throughout a product‘s life cycle is often neglected. This can be explained by the history of LCA, which was developed in industrial countries that usually do not suffer from water scarcity. Furthermore, LCA was traditionally used to assess industrial products, which require rather low amounts of water in their production. However, there are also specific methodological challenges that both the inventory and the impact assessment have to face for water use. Difficulties result from the fact that freshwater is not ‗consumed‘, but rather circulates in global cycles. Furthermore, freshwater availability varies around the globe, different watercourses fulfill different ecological functions, and different water qualities enable different uses. Yet, when accomplishing LCA studies of agricultural products, biofuels, or renewable raw materials, water consumption can be substantial. Hence, it needs to be considered, as otherwise problem shifting from, for instance, ‚global warming‘ to ‚water scarcity‘ can occur. Such a severe deficiency is not acceptable for a methodology that has been developed to support sustainable decision making and is even in conflict with the principle of ‗comprehensiveness‘ required by International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in the ISO 14040 standard. Even though this challenge has not been tackled for a long time, method development is making considerable progress today. Pushed from initiatives like the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) or the UNEP/SETAC Life Cycle Initiative, comprehensive methods to account for water use on both inventory and impact assessment level have been developed. Furthermore, in addition to the ‗carbon footprint‘, which can be regarded as a single-impact LCA only addressing greenhouse gases, the ISO has recently started to establish an international standard to assess water use in LCA. Taking into account the recent efforts in method development, the standardization process and the increased public awareness, it may become true that ―water is the new carbon‖ as claimed by a recent article in the British newspaper The Independent. Therefore, this paper aims at reviewing a broad range of scientific methods that have been developed up to now, which account for water use on both inventory and impact assessment levels. After presenting an overview of the methods, the individual advantages and shortcomings of each method are discussed. Based on the identified gaps, research recommendations for method improvement are derived.

Read the full article in PDF format by clicking here.

Citation: Berger, M.; Finkbeiner, M. Water Footprinting: How to Address Water Use in Life Cycle Assessment?. Sustainability 2010, 2, 919-944.

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