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Lithium LCA Guidance

Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) are rapidly becoming a standard piece of documentation for products.

Although an LCA typically describes more than ten so-called environmental impact factors, the carbon footprint (CF) – or Global Warming Potential (GWP-100) – attracts most of the attention.

The interest in carbon footprints is driven by several factors, including: (i) supply chain partners are increasingly reporting indirect emissions (scope-3), which includes the carbon footprint of purchased chemicals (like lithium compounds), (ii) authorities, NGOs, media and other stakeholders use carbon footprints to compare products and processes, formulate legislation and more, and (iii) understanding the carbon footprint of a production process drives continuous improvement and innovation on the road to net zero.

Reporting requirements for emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) will include scope-3 by 2030 (under the USA’s SEC requirements and the EU’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD)) which require carbon footprints of purchased materials. Other legislation specifically proposes the carbon footprint as a yardstick: the EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) against ‘carbon leakage’ intends to raise a border tax based on the carbon footprint of imported materials, while the EU’s Battery Directive intends to classify battery materials based on their carbon footprints.

What is an LCA? 

A life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a process of evaluating the effects that a product has on the environment over the entire period of its life thereby increasing resource-use efficiency and decreasing liabilities. It can be used to study the environmental impact of either a product or the function the product is designed to perform. An LCA is commonly referred to as “cradle-to-grave” analysis.

The key elements of an LCA are: (1) identify and quantify the environmental loads involved; e.g. the energy and raw materials consumed, the emissions and waste generated; (2) evaluate the potential environmental impacts of these loads; and (3) assess the options available for reducing these environmental impacts.  Source: United Nations Environment Programme

How to undertake a lithium LCA

Anybody looking for guidance on how to undertake a LCA of lithium production will find a large number of non-specific documents and a growing number of LCA studies.

How does one know which procedures were followed and which assumptions were made? Also, when comparing two or more LCAs how does one know that important aspects, like energy mix, data sources, allocation and dealing with by-products were treated in a uniform way?

The fact is that we cannot know because there is no standard guidance document that addresses the specific conditions and challenges in the lithium industry (the ISO standard for LCAs is very generic, covers many products and leaves ample room for interpretation).

ILiA’s Sustainable Lithium Subcommittee aims to close this knowledge gap.

Our proposal for lithium

The proposed lithium carbon footprint guidance document will consider the following aspects:

  • It will determine standards specific to the lithium production industry and refer to existing standards where possible. This should lead to a practical, concise document that anyone can use.
  • It will align with existing standards, such as, ISO and Product Environmental Footprint Category Rules (PEFCR) of lithium batteries (as batteries are the main application of lithium).
  • It will be agnostic to the lithium production route.

Although the goal is ambitious, the good news is that we have been able to learn a lot from our friends at other associations, including RECHARGE, the Nickel Institute and the Cobalt Institute, which have already developed similar guidance for their respective industries.

ILiA’s membership of the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) and the Global Battery Alliance (GBA) helps ensure our lithium guidance is aligned with other battery raw materials too.   

The road ahead

The Sustainable Lithium Subcommittee is forming a working group with wide representation from the lithium industry, including non-members and academic experts. The working group will produce the first draft of the guidance and participation is open to both ILiA members and non-members (see below for details).

The draft guidance document will be written by Johannes Drielsma, an independent project leader with vast experience in the creation of carbon footprint guidance documents and the management of complex multi-stakeholder processes. Mr Drielsma works very closely with the Cobalt Institute on carbon footprint guidance, and he has contributed to battery LCA guidance for the GBA too.

The committee aims to complete the draft guidance document this year. The need for speed is simple: if the lithium industry does not set its own (industry specific) standards, someone else will do it for us!

Our initial guidance will focus on the carbon footprint of lithium, with subsequent guidance focusing on water use. We recognize that some aspects of the first version of the guidance may not be perfect and that some aspects, such as lithium recycling, will need addressing in a subsequent version, but that is part of the standard setting process, and we hope that you will join us for the journey.

The Sustainable Lithium Subcommittee of ILiA is Mark De Boer (Chair, Albemarle Corp.), Christina Wang (Tianqi Lithium), Kathryn Smith (Allkem), Sebastian Franco (SQM), Austin Devaney (Piedmont Lithium), and Eulogio Almanza (Pilbara Minerals).

Join the Lithium LCA Working Group!

ILiA is seeking interested parties to join the Lithium LCA Working Group that will help to create the first standard industry guidance regarding lithium life cycle assessments.

“We have chosen the format of an open working group, including non-members and academia, to create maximum buy-in to the project. We expect a very motivated group to move ahead quickly.” Mark de Boer, Chair.

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