U.S. Environmental Protection Agency


Date of this Version



Published in Journal of Industrial Ecology (2011) 15(4): 60 p.; DOI:10.1111/j.1530-9290.2011.00333.x


Founded in thermodynamics and systems ecology, emergy evaluation is a method to associate a product with its dependencies on all upstream environmental and resource flows using a common unit of energy. Emergy is thus proposed as an indicator of aggregate resource use for life cycle assessment (LCA). An LCA of gold mining, based on an original life cycle inventory of a large gold mine in Peru, is used to demonstrate how emergy can be incorporated as an impact indicator into a process-based LCA model. The results demonstrate the usefulness of emergy in the LCA context. The adaptation of emergy evaluation, traditionally performed outside of the LCA framework, requires changes to the conventional accounting rules and the incorporation of uncertainty estimations of the emergy conversion factors, or unit emergy values. At the same time, traditional LCA boundaries are extended to incorporate the environmental processes that provide for raw resources, including ores. The total environmental contribution to the product, doré, is dominated by mining and metallurgical processes and not the geological processes forming the gold ore. The measure of environmental contribution to 1 gram (g) of doré is 6.8E + 12 solar-equivalent Joules (sej) and can be considered accurate within a factor of 2. These results are useful in assessing a process in light of available resources, which is essential to measuring long-term sustainability. Comparisons are made between emergy and other measures of resource use, and recommendations are made for future incorporation of emergy into LCA that will result in greater consistency with existing life cycle inventory (LCI) databases and other LCA indicators.