Congratulations Life Cycle community for the global acknowledgement of Life Cycle Assessment and life cycle approaches at the Fourth United Nations Environment Assembly! (UNEA4) The texts and narrative (Ministerial Declaration, Resolutions, but also conclusions from Leadership Dialogues and several side events) endorsed in UNEA4 provide a strong acknowledgement that life cycle approaches (including Life Cycle Assessment) are a must to achieve sustainable consumption and production, increase resource efficiency, and reduce risks (e.g. of hazardous chemicals and all forms of waste). Life cycle approaches and assessment, in various denominations, are mentioned 21 times across 8 of the resolutions, as well as in the Ministerial Declaration of the 2019 United Nations Environment Assembly. All of the resolutions and the Ministerial Declaration are available online.

Many Life Cycle Initiative active members participated in the negotiations of the resolutions as well as in the many events that took place in Nairobi around the UNEA4, between between 4th and 15th of March 2019. The Initiative also featured very visibly within our partner’s One Planet network’s “Camp One Planet”, where live demos of the newly launched SCP Hotspot Analysis Tool (SCP HAT) were on the menu daily.

UNEA4 invites and requests all actors across the value chain (including governments, business and finance sector) to act informed by life cycle approaches, and explicitly requests UN Environment to support member states at several levels. From the Life Cycle Initiative, we see this as a “coming of age” of life cycle approaches, certainly among the global environmental policy-making community, and invite everyone to help us ramp up our collective impact!

Despite the plane crash and the tragic news of the loss of so many lives and colleagues, or maybe spurred by it, the environmental community came together in Nairobi to agree on important texts and commitments towards innovative solutions for environmental challenges and sustainable consumption and production.

Presence of the Life Cycle Initiative in UNEA4

During the UN Science-Policy-Business Forum (8-10 March), together with members and partners, the Initiative’s project Sustainable Consumption and Production Hotspots Analysis Tool (SCP-HAT) was presented as an important tool to support science-based national policy frameworks. Also, some of our other key projects and products, such as the Global LCA Data Access network (GLAD) and the e-Learning modules on introduction to life cycle approaches were presented as works contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Camp One Planet

Visitors were given a chance to try the SCP-HAT themselves on touch-screens

During UNEA 4 (11-15 March) UN Environment and other partners of the Initiative (member states; PRé Sustainability; FICCI; SACEP…) took part or lead a variety of events; the UN Environment life cycle team (where the Secretariat of the Initiative is hosted) also provided technical support in the negotiation of the resolutions. During the SDG Innovation Talks, an initiative of our late colleague Victor Tsang, Llorenҫ Milà i Canals and Felix Dodds led a talk on “Sustainable development: Life cycle and historical perspectives”, where many of the Initiative’s activities were presented and discussed. The Life Cycle Initiative was also actively engaged in the One Planet network’s Camp One Planet, where visitors were given a chance to try the SCP-HAT themselves on touch-screens.

UN Environment’s life cycle team also organised the Leadership Dialogue on “Life-cycle approaches to resource efficiency, energy, chemicals and waste management”. This dialogue concluded that life cycle approaches provide the systemic perspective necessary to focus on the key levers of change and address potential trade-offs linked to alternative solutions; they help addressing market distortions and economic signals. The benefits of life cycle approaches may be scaled up through strategic decisions such as institutional procurement (both public and private) and investment: this will boost the transition towards sustainable consumption and production. UN Environment is already contributing to the enabling conditions for the global application of life cycle approaches such as enhanced capacity and access to data, but more is required. The Global Lifecycle Data Access network, and the Hotspots Tool to assess national footprints were highlighted. The digital transformation is an important enabler for the necessary changes connected to life cycle approaches and circular economy – we should encourage traceability, transparency to empower consumers.

Expert Panel in the Leadership Dialogue on life cycle approaches. From L-R: Moderator Janez Potočnik, Co-Chair, International Resource Panel; Inga Rhonda King, President of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC); Sarah Chandler, Apple Inc; Michael Gotsche, BASF-Africa; Stefanie Hellweg, ETH Zurich; and Leyla Acaroglu, UNEP Champion of the Earth

The resolutions in this UNEA4 provide many links to the need to base decisions on life cycle approaches and full life cycle assessment. Special attention should be given to lower income countries, showing how life cycle approaches can help them leap-frogging to a better future focusing on social aspects of the transition (employment, inclusiveness, local benefits). Finally, we need a strong focus on cooperation and implementation.

The Initiative was also behind the organisation of an expert panel bringing a life cycle perspective to working together to beat plastics pollution, and supported discussions and debates on the topic of plastics pollution in the Clean Seas tent.

Substantive references to life cycle approaches in UNEA4 texts

The various texts and narratives endorsed in UNEA4, including the Ministerial Declaration, the Resolutions as well as conclusions from several side events such as the Leadership Dialogue, provide a strong acknowledgement that life cycle approaches are a must to achieve sustainable consumption and production, increase resource efficiency, and reduce risks (e.g. of hazardous chemicals and all forms of waste). Life cycle approaches and assessment, in various denominations, are mentioned 21 times across 8 of the resolutions, as well as in the Ministerial Declaration of the 2019 United Nations Environment Assembly. More explicitly, UNEA4 requests UN Environment to deliver specific studies / knowledge and support to member states related to life cycle approaches at four different levels:

  1. At the top level, the Life Cycle Initiative could support the strategic application and technical development of the Hotspots Analysis tool in Member States, in collaboration with other partners (e.g. International Resource Panel, One Planet network, PAGE, GGKP…), in response to the encouragement to improve national resource management strategies to achieve resource-efficient and low-carbon economies. See e.g. the Ministerial Declaration, and the resolutions on (L2) Innovative pathways to achieve sustainable consumption and production or (L5) Addressing environmental challenges through sustainable business practices.
  2. Additionally, the Life Cycle Initiative would work with other UNEP colleagues and partners to deliver supporting LCA studies for specific sectors (plastics, textiles and construction), as singled out in the resolutions on sustainable consumption and production (L2), Marine plastic litter and microplastics (L7), or addressing pollution from single use plastic products (L10). Such studies would inform the potential of different sustainable economic models, as well as specific alternative technologies and products.
  3. Other resolutions (on sustainable mobility, L4; sustainable business practices, L5; sustainable infrastructure, L6; sound management of waste, L8; sustainable nitrogen management, L16) will benefit from guidance on the way to apply life cycle assessment / life cycle approaches. The Life Cycle Initiative could convene work across different stakeholders in delivering such guidance.
  4. Finally, some resolutions have implicit requirements for specific methodological development needs: the resolution on sound management of chemicals and waste implicitly requires life cycle assessment tools capable to assess toxicity of chemicals along their life cycle (see USEtox) and those on marine litter (L7) and single use plastic products (L10) require marine litter indicators for a complete picture in the LCA. The resolution on Innovative pathways to achieve sustainable consumption and production (L2) implicitly requires assessing value retention processes, such as direct reuse, repair, refurbishment and remanufacturing: this will need a proper handling of multiple use cycles, something that LCA struggles with. The Life Cycle Initiative is already active in some of these (e.g. toxicity assessment of chemicals in products; marine litter assessment), and where relevant could start discussion teams to advance on the community’s position about such specific aspects.

All above requests are somehow described / included in the current strategy of the Life Cycle Initiative, but we need additional resources to implement them. They imply the mainstreaming of use of life cycle approaches and assessment, and make an implicit demand to ensure the enabling conditions to apply them, including access to life cycle assessment datasets, agreed impact (footprint) indicators, and capacity. Significant progress has been achieved by the Life Cycle Initiative in the last years on enhancing the status of enabling conditions, but more is needed. The Life Cycle Initiative is best placed to significantly scale-up its contribution to such enabling conditions, which ensure cross-cutting support to all mentioned resolutions and future efforts towards sustainable consumption and production.

Overall, UNEA4 provided the Life Cycle Initiative with many valuable insights and opportunities. The presentation of the Initiative’s work across several events as well as discussions with many interested participants enabled further outreach to possible partners and members. Most importantly, the Initiative was able to follow the development of the Ministerial Declaration and resolutions. Now the Life Cycle Initiative will work to further adapt its efforts towards achieving the resolutions put forward.

As a final word, we would like pay respect and remember our late colleague Victor Shangai Tsang, who was en route to UNEA4 in Nairobi as a passenger on the Ethiopian Airlines flight that ended so tragically on 10 March. Victor served as a programme officer in UN Environment, and passionately established the Sustainable Development Goals Hub in UN Environment. His strong commitment and support to the Initiative’s project on Linking the UN Sustainable Development Goals to life cycle impact pathway frameworks will not be forgotten.