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Reassessing the reliability of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) in decision making:

By Stefaan Vanhalle - R&D Manager


The use of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) methodologies has been intended to provide a comprehensive view of a product's environmental impact throughout its life cycle. However, several fundamental issues undermine the credibility and practicality of these approaches. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) have been set as potential tools for evaluating the environmental impacts of products and processes. However, both methods reveal significant shortcomings that cast doubt on their reliability and relevance for decision-making. This paper delves into the inherent limitations of LCA and PEF methodologies, highlighting the dangers of basing decisions on potentially misleading information. LCAs and PEFs are not absolute. One of the reasons is that there is no blueprint that everybody follows. Also, from any given set of raw data, there is no single, unique value that will automatically be generated for emissions, water consumption etc. These are the main reasons why different impacts can be obtained from exactly the same data, by using different models, methodologies, and boundaries. Blanket statements such as ‘LCAs have proven’ or ‘LCAs have demonstrated’ are not scientifically based. 

Challenges with LCA and PEF

Assumption-based scenarios:
the reliance on numerous assumptions in LCA scenarios introduces uncertainty and potential bias into the results, making them less reliable for decision-making. These uncertainties can affect the credibility and reliability of LCA results, making it crucial for decision-makers to critically assess and validate the assumptions or consider conducting sensitivity analyses to understand the impact of varying assumptions on the final outcomes.

Data limitations:
the lack of realistic and measured data for each stage of the life cycle hampers the accuracy and relevance of LCA and PEF outcomes.
Technological evolution:
the failure to take into account technological advancements in LCA and PEF can lead to results that are not reflective of future realities, thereby compromising the reliability of these assessments for long-term decision-making. Addressing this challenge requires adopting dynamic models, regularly updating datasets, conducting scenario analyses, and leveraging predictive analytics to ensure that LCA and PEF studies remain relevant and accurate as technologies evolve. By doing so, decision-makers can make more informed choices that better align with future sustainability goals.
Weighting factors and subjectivity:
the use of weighting factors in impact categories lacks scientific rigor and can be manipulated to skew results, undermining the objectivity of LCA and PEF assessments.
Comparative validity:
LCA and PEF may not be suitable for comparing products across different scenarios, limiting their utility to internal use for specific environmental impact improvements.

Recommendations and way forward

Shifting to concrete metrics:
emphasizing measurable factors such as water and energy consumption during operation as decisive indicators of environmental impact and circularity.

Rethinking of  weighting factors:
development of scientifically grounded weighting factors for impact categories, ensuring objectivity and reliability in assessments.

Embracing technological advancements:
incorporation of evolving technologies like electrification, digitization, and chemical recycling into assessment frameworks for a more accurate portrayal of environmental impacts.

Promotion of transparency and accountability:
encourage transparency in data sources and methodologies used in LCA and PEF assessments, fostering trust and reliability in results.


The limitations and uncertainties inherent in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) methodologies call for a reevaluation of their role in decision-making processes. By focusing on concrete, measurable metrics and embracing technological advancements, we can move towards more reliable and actionable strategies for assessing and improving environmental impact and circularity in product life cycles.

Karine Van Doorsselaar (2024): De rol van ecodesign in de circulaire economie 
Veronica Bates-Kassaty & Dorothée Baumann-Pauly (2022): The Rise of LCAs and the Fall of Sustainability –