4.3 Carbon: Carbon Life Cycle

Author: Renée Trecroce

ABSTRACT: Carbon lifecycle is a “cradle to grave” approach to assessing the carbon footprint of a product or resource. Emissions produced during production, manufacturing, operation and disposal phases contribute to a complete carbon audit. The application of carbon lifecycle assessment to international agreements can address issues of accountability in the global marketplace.

Image 1. Stages of carbon lifecycle. (source: Adams, Burrows & Richerson, 2019)


Carbon lifecycle refers to the total amount of carbon dioxide emissions associated with a product throughout its lifetime. The framework addresses the ambiguity of a contemporary chain of production. It crosses spatial and temporal boundaries to create a complete carbon profile. The lifecycle stages occur as follows: production, construction, operations, and disposal. Carbon footprints at each phase in the lifecycle can be broken down into four categories: embodied carbon, operational carbon, end-of-life carbon and whole-life carbon.

Embodied carbon refers to the carbon emissions associated with the extradition and fabric of materials, assemblage, and transportation of a product before it reaches the consumer. Production and construction stages produce a substantial carbon footprint “upfront”. Production stage includes the collection of raw materials, its transportation and manufacturing (Adams et. al, 2019). Construction process stage consists of transportation of manufactured goods and its construction and installation (Adams et. al, 2019).

Operational carbon is the second phase in the lifecycle. Carbon that is emitted during product use is the most commonly used indicator of carbon emissions under a conventional carbon footprint analysis. Carbon lifecycle perspective expands this scope of operation to include carbon emitted during product maintenance, repair, refurbishment and replacement (Adams et. al, 2019).

The final phase of a product lifecycle is the end-of-life carbon. This refers to carbon emission from deconstruction and demolition, transportation of waste materials, waste processing and disposal. Whole-life carbon is a theoretical framework that encapsulates all carbon emitted during the entirety of a product’s lifecycle. This includes the previous three stages as well as the “carbon emissions or emission savings incurred due to reuse, recovery or recycling of materials” (Adams et. al, 2019). Emission savings due to effective waste management and conservation practices speaks to the principles of the carbon budget. The carbon budget emphasizes the Earth as a closed loop system, one that would greatly benefit from diverting carbon from atmospheric and hydrological spheres (ECCC, 2020). The reuse, recovery and recycling of carbon materials act as carbon sinks in this industrialized process. These sinks are positive opportunities for system change.

This paper demonstrates why carbon lifecycle assessments should be standard practice in international climate change agreements. In a globalized world, stages of production are spread across countries and continents. Raw materials extraction and processing are located in regions where natural resources are found. Manufacturing and disposal processes are influenced by social, economic and political factors; regions are chosen based on lowest operational costs (Bavinck, 2014). The immediate social and environmental costs will greatly affect locals who lack the economic and political power to mitigate these effects (Bavinck, 2014; Ding, 2005). For the average Canadian, most products will be harvested, processed and disposed abroad. The distance from production and low costs will facilitate high consumption rates (IGES, 2019).

Carbon lifecycle assessments can quantify the harm that Canadian consumption has on others. It can be used as a tool for accountability in UNFCCC agreements. This report recommends that the November 2021 COP 26 report restrict Canada’s waste management to its own political boundaries. A carbon lifecycle assessment can prove that the current system of exporting “recyclables” to Malaysia (Staub, 2021) is environmental exploitation, and the burden of responsibility falls exclusively on Canada.


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Renée Trecroce is in her last semester in the Environmental and Urban Sustainability program at Ryerson University. She aims to maintain a zero-waste lifestyle while living in Toronto.

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