How to treat uncertainties in life cycle assessment studies?
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The use of life cycle assessment (LCA) as a decision support tool can be hampered by the numerous uncertainties embedded in the calculation. The treatment of uncertainty is necessary to increase the reliability and credibility of LCA results. The objective is to provide an overview of the methods to identify, characterize, propagate (uncertainty analysis), understand the effects (sensitivity analysis), and communicate uncertainty in order to propose recommendations to a broad public of LCA practitioners.
This work was carried out via a literature review and an analysis of LCA tool functionalities. In order to facilitate the identification of uncertainty, its location within an LCA model was distinguished between quantity (any numerical data), model structure (relationships structure), and context (criteria chosen within the goal and scope of the study). The methods for uncertainty characterization, uncertainty analysis, and sensitivity analysis were classified according to the information provided, their implementation in LCA software, the time and effort required to apply them, and their reliability and validity. This review led to the definition of recommendations on three levels: basic (low efforts with LCA software), intermediate (significant efforts with LCA software), and advanced (significant efforts with non-LCA software).
Results and discussion
For the basic recommendations, minimum and maximum values (quantity uncertainty) and alternative scenarios (model structure/context uncertainty) are defined for critical elements in order to estimate the range of results. Result sensitivity is analyzed via one-at-a-time variations (with realistic ranges of quantities) and scenario analyses. Uncertainty should be discussed at least qualitatively in a dedicated paragraph. For the intermediate level, the characterization can be refined with probability distributions and an expert review for scenario definition. Uncertainty analysis can then be performed with the Monte Carlo method for the different scenarios. Quantitative information should appear in inventory tables and result figures. Finally, advanced practitioners can screen uncertainty sources more exhaustively, include correlations, estimate model error with validation data, and perform Latin hypercube sampling and global sensitivity analysis.
Through this pedagogic review of the methods and practical recommendations, the authors aim to increase the knowledge of LCA practitioners related to uncertainty and facilitate the application of treatment techniques. To continue in this direction, further research questions should be investigated (e.g., on the implementation of fuzzy logic and model uncertainty characterization) and the developers of databases, LCIA methods, and software tools should invest efforts in better implementing and treating uncertainty in LCA.
KeywordsCommunication LCA software Life cycle assessment Sensitivity analysis Uncertainty analysis Uncertainty characterization
The authors gratefully acknowledge the members of the SCORELCA association for their feedback on the review of and recommendations for uncertainty treatment methods.
This work was funded by the SCORELCA association (study 2014-03).
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