Improving Innovation: Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Emerging Technology

Improving Innovation: Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Emerging Technology

New technologies carry both the promise of improvement of human welfare and the threat of undesired environmental consequences. Applying life cycle assessment (LCA) early in the development of technologies – when still at lab or pilot scale – provides valuable insights about how to prioritize research activities and to potentially avoid damage to the environment. LCA quantifies environmental and resources impacts of products and technologies from raw material extraction and processing, through a product’s manufacture, distribution and use, to recycling or final disposal. LCA of emerging technologies can help research and development (R&D) groups, planners, and policymakers look ahead and identify environmental and resource implications, potential liabilities, and other unanticipated consequences of products and technologies early in innovation.

Existing LCA methods, standards, and guidelines, however, focus on the evaluation of products or processes that are already commercially established. The procedures and tools used to assess emerging technologies still tend to be applied on an ad hoc basis, with no clear guidelines as to what methods are available, applicable or appropriate. “Life Cycle Assessment for Emerging Technologies,” a special issue of Yale’s Journal of Industrial Ecology, addresses this gap with cutting edge research that advances methods, tests new approaches against emerging technologies, and assesses novel technologies for transportation, infrastructure, energy and materials.



The findings included in this special issue have far-reaching implications for the technology developers and policy makers. For example, two papers reveal the potential environmental consequences of the rapid increase in production of the lithium-ion battery packs that power everything from electric cars to portable computing devices. In contrast to earlier analyses, these studies show that on a global scale, expansion of lithium production is likely to continue without being slowed by resource constraints for up to three more decades. Meanwhile, localized environmental impacts associated with extraction and processing of high-grade lithium ion brines are likely to create geographic imbalances in the environmental impacts and benefits of that expansion.

This special issue also includes papers on new approaches to comparative assessment of emerging energy technologies. These new analyses make clear that the age of single-technology solutions at massive, industrial scales is coming to a close. The papers here examine environmental impacts of alternative energy futures for algae-derived fuels, hydrogen, solar, and off-shore wind energy technologies.

New methods for the application of LCA to emerging technologies also include LCA inventories (databases) that can be aligned with the scenarios used in the integrated assessment models (IAMs) widely used in climate change modeling. Methods to incorporate technology readiness levels (TRLs) that are used in R&D management allow connection of LCA with other complementary tools such as multi-criteria decision analysis, risk analysis, techno-economic analysis, and the development of data repositories for emerging materials, processes, and technologies.

The research in “LCA for Emerging Technologies” not only advances understanding and methods for the environmental assessment of novel technologies, it also shows potential for refashioning the tools of systematic environmental assessment to apply at the earliest stages of the innovation cycle, said Reid Lifset, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Industrial Ecology.

The Journal of Industrial Ecology is a peer-reviewed international scientific journal owned by Yale University and co-edited with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and Tsinghua University. It is headquartered in the Center for Industrial Ecology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. The special issue was edited by Joule Bergerson (University of Calgary), Stefano Cucurachi (Leiden University), and Thomas Seager (Arizona State University). A grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation provided partial support for the special issue including funds for open access publication of four of the articles in the issue.