Characterization model to assess ocean acidification within life cycle assessment

Purpose

Ocean acidification due to the absorption of increasing amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide has become a severe problem in the recent years as more and more marine species are influenced by the decreasing pH value as well as by the reduced carbonate ion concentration. So far, no characterization model exists for ocean acidification. This paper aims to establish such a characterization model to allow for the necessary future inclusion of ocean acidification in life cycle assessment (LCA) case studies.

Methods

Based on a cause-effect chain for ocean acidification, the substances carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and methane were identified as relevant for this impact category. In a next step, the fate factor representing the substances’ share absorbed by the ocean due to conversion, distribution, and dissolution is determined. Then, the fate sensitivity factor is established reflecting the changes in the marine environment due to the amount of released hydrogen ions per gram of substance (category indicator). Finally, fate and fate sensitivity factors of each substance are multiplied and set in relation to the reference substance, carbon dioxide, thereby delivering the respective characterization factors (in kg CO2 eq) at midpoint level.

Results and discussion

Characterization factors are provided for carbon monoxide (0.87 kg CO2 eq), carbon dioxide (1 kg CO2 eq), and methane (0.84 kg CO2 eq), which allow conversion of inventory results of these substances into category indicator results for ocean acidification. Inventory data of these substances is available in common LCA databases and software. Hence, the developed method is directly applicable. In a subsequent contribution analysis, the relative contribution of the three selected substances, along with other known acidifying substances, to the ocean acidification potential of 100 different materials was studied. The contribution analysis confirmed carbon dioxide as the predominant substance responsible for more than 97 % of the total ocean acidification potential. However, the influence of other acidifying substances, e.g., sulfur dioxide, should not be neglected.

Conclusions

Evaluation of substances contributing to ocean acidification is of growing importance since the acidity of oceans has been increasing steadily over the last decades. The introduced approach can be applied to evaluate product system related impacts of ocean acidification and include those into current LCA practice.

Bach V., Möller F., Finogenova N., Emara Y. & Finkbeiner M., in press. Characterization model to assess ocean acidification within life cycle assessment. The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment. Article (subscription required).

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