LCA of ICT solutions: environmental impacts and challenges of assessment
Sammanfattning: Information and communication technology (ICT) is playing an important role in modern society, contributing to economic growth and affecting society and people’s lifestyles. There are high expectations on ICT to contribute to sustainable development, e.g. through greenhouse gas emissions reductions. ICT solutions (ICT products and services) are often perceived as having low or no environmental impacts compared with conventional alternatives. In order to determine the potential of ICT to reduce environmental impacts, environmental assessments of ICT solutions compared with other alternatives are needed. A number of studies have already assessed the environmental impacts of individual ICT solutions and the ICT sector. However, more research is needed, covering different types of impacts (primary, secondary, rebound, etc.) in a variety of impact categories (e.g. climate change, ozone depletion, eutrophication, human and ecotoxicity, etc.). The findings then need to be systematised in order to identify hot-spots and draw generic conclusions. As the area is rather new and fast-developing, assessment methods need to be critically appraised in order to identify challenges and developments necessary for high quality assessments.This thesis aims to contribute to the knowledge on the direct life cycle environmental impacts of ICT solutions and to investigate and analyse the challenges of applying Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) as a tool for environmental assessment of ICT solutions. Two research questions: “What life cycle environmental impacts and their causes can be identified for ICT solutions?” and “What are the methodological challenges of assessing the ICT solutions using LCA?” were analysed by reviewing published LCAs on ICT solutions and conducting a case study of online and printed newspapers. The literature review helped identify hotspots in the life cycle of ICT solutions, draw generic conclusions concerning environmental impacts and their causes, and identify major challenges to LCA application. The case study assessed the environmental impacts of traditional and new media solutions and provided information on methodological challenges.The results show that impacts other than climate change potential and energy use are not well-studied in the ICT sector, creating a risk of possible sub-optimisation and problem shifting. Manufacturing and the use phase are concluded to be the most environmentally intense life cycle stages of ICT products in many studies. However, transportation and end-of-life treatment should not be omitted in the assessments, although their impacts appear lower, as uncertainty and lack of data might be a reason for underestimations.As ICT is under constant and rapid development, environmental assessment of ICT solutions faces challenges regarding e.g. data quality and availability; choice of data type; methodological choices (e.g. choice of functional unit, scope definition and allocation); and assumptions on user behaviour. These affect the final results and thus need to be carefully considered by LCA practitioners.The outcomes of this thesis can benefit practitioners and decision-makers, improving knowledge on the environmental impacts of ICT solutions and challenges in applying LCA for assessment of ICT solutions, and providing improved grounds for more informed decision-making. Areas for further research regarding methodology development and filling knowledge gaps are also identified.
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