Researcher and independent LCA consultant Stephen Northey grew up in the coastal town of Warrnambool in south western Victoria. Perhaps living beside one of this country’s most stunning scenic coastlines is what gave him his appreciation for the importance of our environment, and in particular our waterways.
An interest in climate change led to an environmental engineering degree from Monash and an opportunity to work at CSIRO on LCA studies for mining and metal production. At this point he was hooked on LCA, and returned to Monash to complete a PhD focused on life cycle assessment of water consumption in the mining industry.
Having finished his doctorate earlier this year, Stephen now divides his time between independent consulting on water footprint methodology and work with Monash University developing a modeling framework to link material demand and recycling scenarios to required future mineral supply and mine development.
We talked to Stephen about LCA, water footprints and the mining industry.
How does the mining industry view LCA, and in what ways is it used?
To be honest the uptake of LCA in the mining industry is not very strong, as there are significant local environmental impacts that need to be managed and indirect impacts occurring within a miner’s supply chain are given far less weight during decision making. It is outside stakeholders and observers who want to understand the environmental performance of mining that are pushing LCA in this context. Investors and customers want to understand if the industry is acting responsibly, apply pressure to improve environmental performance, and to understand how mined material selection and sourcing decisions will influence the embodied impact of their products or services. Most life cycle inventory data for mined products and metals is developed by the international metal associations at a fairly aggregated level, from data contributions by the association’ member companies. This data is heavily aggregated for confidentiality reasons, despite mines in many jurisdictions publicly releasing very large amounts of data for individual mine sites through their environmental management and compliance reporting. Overall, there seems to be large opportunities for improved life cycle management within the mining industry to drive process improvement and reduce impacts, as well as improving inventory data available for the industry.
How do you anticipate that LCA will evolve and change in the years ahead?
All aspects of LCA will continue to improve over time. More inventory data will become available and that data will have finer geographic and temporal resolution. This finer grained information will eventually mean that impact methods can also become more nuanced.
We know, for example, that the impact of water use depends on the region and season in which it is used. Once the inventory data and impact methods can account for these regional differences it will give decision makers far greater understanding and insight.
You are involved with the UN Environment Life Cycle Initiative. Tell us a little about that.
I’m on the Natural Resources Taskforce providing technical input to the Global Guidance on Life Cycle Impact Assessment Methods (GLAM) project. Our purpose is to weigh in on LCA impact methods addressing mineral resource depletion and provide recommendations for practitioners and method developers.
I was fortunate enough to be one of the few task force members chosen to attend SETAC’s Pellston Workshop in Spain, where we prepared a formal methodological guidance report for the Life Cycle Initiative that will be released early next year.
I’ve also been coordinating the International Working Group for Water Use in LCA’s (WULCA) work to develop a framework for assessing long-term water use impacts as part of the natural resources area-of-protection. This work has largely wrapped up and we are currently going through the process of getting this published.