Impact Categories (LCA) – Overview

Learn what impact categories are useful for and which impact categories there are.
Impact Category - Photo by James Toose on Unsplash

Impact Categories (LCA) – Overview6 min read

Impact categories help us make actionable statements about how emissions influence the environment.

Actionable is a very important aspect here. Environmental sciences are immensely complex. Thus, when companies try to become more sustainable, they have to define what they mean with that.

Definition: What are impact categories?

An impact category groups different emissions into one effect on the environment.

However, to fully understand impact categories, we need to have a basic understanding of Life Cycle Assessments.

Quick recap: Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA)

Life Cycle Assessment (short LCA) is the standardized method of calculating the impact of, for example, a product on the environment.

During the course of the LCA, a large amount of emission data is collected: emissions from energy production, the waste produced, the raw material production, etc.

Role of Impact categories in an LCA

These emissions come in different shapes and formats since the emissions from harvesting raw materials are very different from the emissions from producing electricity.

Here is where impact categories come into place. During the Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA) of an LCA, we try to unite these different emissions into actionable numbers. Meaning: different emissions that cause the same impact- are converted into one unit that translates into one impact category.

For example, the impact category ‘climate change’ is expressed in kg CO₂ equivalents (kg CO₂-eq). However, other greenhouse gas emissions than carbon emissions (CO₂) cause climate change as well. Such as methane (CH₄), or laughing gas (N₂O). 

By expressing these other GHG emissions with different measuring units in kg CO₂ equivalents- an impact category makes it possible to come to a single metric for climate change.

KPI for the environment

You are probably familiar with the concept of Key Performance Indicators, or KPI, that measure the success of a business.

Impact categories can serve a similar function. They group complex data into accessible numbers – numbers that give a concrete picture of what the impact actually is.

All the impact categories (overview)

Table 1 gives you an overview of the 15 environmental impact categories, which unit they are measured in, and what they describe. Below them, you will find Table 2-4 that include additional parameters and indicators you have to report on for the use of resources, waste types and output flows of materials & energy.

Both the 15 categories and the parameters & indicators are all taken from the EN15804 (A1+A2) standard for LCAs in the construction sector. Other impact assessment methods (such as the PEF 3.0) exist as well, which use slightly different categories. However, the EN15804 gives a good general overview. 

Good to note: the EN15804 standard has been updated to EN15804 + A2 (2019) which has changed some of these impact categories below. Find these new adaptations here.

Table 1. Environmental impacts

Impact category / Indicator Unit Description
Climate change – total, fossil, biogenic and land use kg CO2-eq Indicator of potential global warming due to emissions of greenhouse gases to air. Divided into 3 subcategories based on the emission source: (1) fossil resources, (2) bio-based resources and (3) land use change.
Ozone depletion kg CFC-11-eq Indicator of emissions to air that cause the destruction of the stratospheric ozone layer
Acidification kg mol H+ Indicator of the potential acidification of soils and water due to the release of gases such as nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides
Eutrophication – freshwater kg PO4-eq indicator of the enrichment of the fresh water ecosystem with nutritional elements, due to the emission of nitrogen or phosphor containing compounds
Eutrophication – marine Kg N-eq Indicator of the enrichment of the marine ecosystem with nutritional elements, due to the emission of nitrogen containing compounds.
Eutrophication – terrestrial mol N-eq Indicator of the enrichment of the terrestrial ecosystem with nutritional elements, due to the emission of nitrogen containing compounds.
Photochemical ozone formation kg NMVOC-eq Indicator of emissions of gases that affect the creation of photochemical ozone in the lower atmosphere (smog) catalysed by sunlight.
Depletion of abiotic resources – minerals and metals kg Sb-eq Indicator of the depletion of natural non-fossil resources.
Depletion of abiotic resources – fossil fuels MJ, net calorific value Indicator of the depletion of natural fossil fuel resources.
Human toxicity – cancer, non-cancer CTUh Impact on humans of toxic substances emitted to the environment. Divided into non-cancer and cancer related toxic substances.
Eco-toxicity (freshwater) CTUe Impact on freshwater organisms of toxic substances emitted to the environment.
Water use m3 world eq. deprived Indicator of the relative amount of water used, based on regionalized water scarcity factors.
Land use Dimensionless Measure of the changes in soil quality (Biotic production, Erosion resistance, Mechanical filtration).
Ionising radiation, human health kBq U-235 Damage to human health and ecosystems linked to the emissions of radionuclides.
Particulate matter emissions Disease incidence Indicator of the potential incidence of disease due to particulate matter emissions.

Table 2. Parameters that describe resources used

Parameter Unit Description
Primary renewable energy (materials) MJ Use of renewable primary energy resources as raw materials
Primary renewable energy (energy) MJ Use of renewable primary energy, excluding renewable primary energy resources used as raw materials
Primary renewable energy (total) MJ Sum of the two values above
Primary non-renewable energy (materials) MJ Use of non-renewable primary energy resources as raw materials
Primary non-renewable energy (energy) MJ Use of non-renewable primary energy, excluding renewable primary energy resources used as raw materials
Primary non-renewable energy (total) MJ Sum of the two values above
Use of secondary material kg Material recovered from previous use or from waste which substitutes primary materials
Use of fresh water m3 Freshwater use in absolute values
Use of renewable secondary fuels MJ Renewable fuel recovered from previous use or from waste which substitutes primary fuels
Use of non-renewable secondary fuels MJ Non-renewable fuel recovered from previous use or from waste which substitutes primary fuels

Table 3. Other environmental information: Waste type

Indicator Unit Description
Hazardous waste disposed kg Hazardous waste has a certain degree of toxicity that necessitates special treatment
Non-hazardous waste disposed kg Non-hazardous waste is non-toxic and similar to household waste. It consists of inert waste and ordinary household waste
Radioactive waste disposed kg Radioactive waste mainly originates from nuclear energy reactors

Table 4. Other environmental information: Output flows

Indicator Unit Description
Components for re-use kg Material or components leaving the modelled system boundary which is destined for reuse
Materials for recycling kg Material leaving the modelled system boundary which is destined for recycling
Materials for energy recovery kg Material leaving the modelled system boundary which is destined for use in power stations using secondary fuels (minimum energy efficiency 60% or 65% for installations opened after 2008)
Energy production MJ Energy exported from waste incineration and landfill

Environmental Cost Indicator: One indicator for all impacts

Impact categories are not the be-all and end-all of measuring environmental impacts. In many cases, it makes sense to translate them into one aggregated metric, that makes the data comparable.

One popular metric for this is the Environmental Cost Indicator (ECI). You can learn more about ECI in our article about it.

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