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How Green Is That Product? An Introduction to Life Cycle Environmental Assessment

In this course you will learn the basics of the life-cycle assessment (LCA) method for holistic environmental analysis of products, technologies, and systems. LCA sheds light on the environmental implications of the consumption and behavioral choices we all make on a daily basis.


Course at a Glance

About the Course

Paper or plastic? Local or imported food? Which is better for the environment? To answer these questions, one must take a holistic systems view using a quantitative approach known as life cycle assessment.

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a fundamental method for assessing the environmental impacts of products and technologies from a "cradle to grave" systems perspective. It is an essential tool for anyone who performs environmental analyses or uses the results of such analyses for decision making. 

The course will provide an introduction to LCA methods and applications. Students taking this course will emerge with a solid understanding of why an LCA systems perspective is important, basic skills for sound application of the LCA method and proper interpretation of its results, and an appreciation for the strengths and limitations of LCA in practice. The course will cover the four major steps in LCA: (1) goal and scope definition; (2) life-cycle inventory compilation; (3) life-cycle impact assessment; and (4) interpretation and management. The course will include a hands-on modeling project, which the students will perform in parallel to the lectures to reinforce learning objectives and to gain experience in LCA application.

Course Syllabus

- The basics of energy and mass flows and exchanges with the environment
- Working with unit processes and unit process inventory data
- Study design: goal definition, system boundaries, and functional units
- Compiling the data: life-cycle inventory methods (process-based and input-output methods)
- Understanding impacts: life-cycle impact analysis for land, air, water, and health
- Building a simple LCA model using spreadsheet software
- Results interpretation and reporting

Recommended Background

Familiarity with spreadsheet software (Microsoft Excel or OpenOffice Calc), basic skills in algebra, matrix operations, and statistics, and some exposure to environmental issues related to energy use, air pollution, water pollution, waste generation, and climate change.

Suggested Readings

All required readings will be publicly available with links posted on the course website.


Will I get a Statement of Accomplishment after completing this class?

Yes. Students who successfully complete the class will receive a Statement of Accomplishment signed by the instructor.

What resources will I need for this class?
For this course, you'll need an internet connection, enthusiasm for environmental problem solving through quantitative analysis, and access to spreadsheet software (Microsoft Excel or OpenOffice Calc).  Importantly, students should have basic proficiency in working with spreadsheet software, since no spreadsheet training will be provided.

What is the coolest thing I'll learn if I take this class?
You'll gain a valuable new perspective that will allow you to evaluate the myriad environmental claims we encounter on a daily basis, which may lead you to some surprising answers about how "green" your consumption and behavioral choices truly are!