Hybrid Framework for Managing Uncertainty in Life Cycle Inventories


Address correspondence to:
Prof. Eric Williams
School of Sustainable
Engineering and the Built Environment
P.O. Box 875306
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ 85287


Life cycle assessment (LCA) is increasingly being used to inform decisions related to environmental technologies and polices, such as carbon footprinting and labeling, national emission inventories, and appliance standards. However, LCA studies of the same product or service often yield very different results, affecting the perception of LCA as a reliable decision tool. This does not imply that LCA is intrinsically unreliable; we argue instead that future development of LCA requires that much more attention be paid to assessing and managing uncertainties. In this article we review past efforts to manage uncertainty and propose a hybrid approach combining process and economic input–output (I-O) approaches to uncertainty analysis of life cycle inventories (LCI). Different categories of uncertainty are sometimes not tractable to analysis within a given model framework but can be estimated from another perspective. For instance, cutoff or truncation error induced by some processes not being included in a bottom-up process model can be estimated via a top-down approach such as the economic I-O model. A categorization of uncertainty types is presented (data, cutoff, aggregation, temporal, geographic) with a quantitative discussion of methods for evaluation, particularly for assessing temporal uncertainty. A long-term vision for LCI is proposed in which hybrid methods are employed to quantitatively estimate different uncertainty types, which are then reduced through an iterative refinement of the hybrid LCI method.