Issue 11, 2023

Carbon accounting without life cycle analysis


Life cycle analysis (LCA) is deeply embedded in carbon accounting. LCA is valuable for qualitatively understanding technologies’ environmental footprints. However, ambiguities and insatiable data requirements make it ill-suited for quantitative analysis. Fortunately, accounting without LCA is possible, for example, by demanding that for every ton of carbon coming out of the ground, another ton must be sequestered. This “Carbon Takeback Obligation” (CTBO) policy would eliminate the need for tracking carbon through supply chains. With all supply chains already carbon balanced, it is sufficient to quantify the amount of carbon sequestered without subtracting upstream emissions. Our modeling shows that once full carbon neutrality is demanded, market forces alone will eliminate counterproductive sequestration technologies, approaches that release more CO2 than they store. Complications arise during the transition where some carbon extraction is not yet balanced out by sequestration, as under some policies, counterproductive technologies could be introduced solely to game the system. We explore the economics of four transition pathways: a simple CTBO, a CTBO combined with permits required for all unbalanced carbon, a CTBO combined with a futures market, and permit-future hybrid schemes. A simple CTBO that does not add an economic burden on unmitigated carbon would incentivize low-cost, counterproductive technologies. Contrastingly, a CTBO policy that includes permits and/or futures will render such technologies uneconomical at any point in the transition. A policy with controlled futures would allow for rapid permit phaseout. Hybrid systems could lessen the initiation shock and bridge the transition time when market demand exceeds sequestration capacity.

Graphical abstract: Carbon accounting without life cycle analysis

Article information

Article type
10 Apr 2023
21 Aug 2023
First published
05 Oct 2023
This article is Open Access
Creative Commons BY license

Energy Environ. Sci., 2023,16, 4968-4982

Carbon accounting without life cycle analysis

K. S. Lackner, S. H. Arcusa, H. Azarabadi, V. Sriramprasad and R. Page, Energy Environ. Sci., 2023, 16, 4968 DOI: 10.1039/D3EE01138K

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported Licence. You can use material from this article in other publications without requesting further permissions from the RSC, provided that the correct acknowledgement is given.

Read more about how to correctly acknowledge RSC content.

Social activity