Life cycle assessment (LCA) concerns one of the major approaches in the field of industrial ecology. It involves a cradle-to-grave analysis of product systems, that is, of the total of processes which are involved in the provision of a certain function. It is complementary to other tools, such as environmental risk assessment, focusing on the environmental impacts of single activities or single substances, or substance flow analysis, focusing on the metabolism of substances in the economy as well as in the environment. LCA is a formal, quantitative tool in the area of LCA. Main contributing organizations are SETAC, responsible for its scientific development, ISO, responsible for its international standardization, and UNEP, taking a leading position in the enhancement of its global use. LCA appears to be increasingly used by industry, from operational decisions, like the purchasing of materials, up to strategic decisions. Like other formal analytical tools, LCA has a number of clear limitations. Some of these can be tackled by technical measures, some by procedural measures. But some limitations deal with paradigmatic differences regarding the way one wants to cope with risks. Decision procedures involving stakeholders with a risk approach versus stakeholders with a precautionary approach cannot easily be supported by LCA or other formal and quantitative environmental assessment tools.
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