Characterizing, Propagating, and Analyzing Uncertainty in Life-Cycle Assessment: A Survey of Quantitative Approaches


Concurrent Technologies Corporation, 100 CTC Drive, Johnstown, PA 15904 USA


Life-cycle assessment (LCA) practitioners build models to quantify resource consumption, environmental releases, and potential environmental and human health impacts of product systems. Most often, practitioners define a model structure, assign a single value to each parameter, and build deterministic models to approximate environmental outcomes. This approach fails to capture the variability and uncertainty inherent in LCA. To make good decisions, decision makers need to understand the uncertainty in and divergence between LCA outcomes for different product systems. Several approaches for conducting LCA under uncertainty have been proposed and implemented. For example, Monte Carlo simulation and fuzzy set theory have been applied in a limited number of LCA studies. These approaches are well understood and are generally accepted in quantitative decision analysis. But they do not guarantee reliable outcomes. A survey of approaches used to incorporate quantitative uncertainty analysis into LCA is presented. The suitability of each approach for providing reliable outcomes and enabling better decisions is discussed. Approaches that may lead to overconfident or unreliable results are discussed and guidance for improving uncertainty analysis in LCA is provided.