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Are there infinitely many trucks in the technosphere, or exactly one? How independent sampling of instances of unit processes affects uncertainty analysis in LCA

Lesage, Pascal, Mutel, Chris, Schenker, Urs, Margni, Manuele
The international journal of life cycle assessment 2019 v.24 no.2 pp. 338-350
Monte Carlo method, databases, life cycle inventory, models, trucks, uncertainty, uncertainty analysis, unit process
PURPOSE: Product systems use the same unit process models to represent distinct but similar activities. This notably applies to activities in cyclic dependency relationships (or “feedback loops”) that are required an infinite number of times in a product system. The study aims to test the sensitivity of uncertainty results on the assumption made concerning these different instances of the same activities. The default assumption assumes homogeneous production, and the same parameter values are sampled for all instances (e.g., there is one truck). The alternative assumption is that every instance is distinct, and parameter values are independently sampled for different instances of unit processes (e.g., there are infinitely many trucks). Intuitively, sampling the same values for each instance of a unit process should result in more uncertain results. METHODS: The results of uncertainty analyses carried out under either assumption are compared. To simulate models where each instance of a unit process is independent, we convert network models to acyclic LCI models (tree models). This is done three times: (1) for a very simple product system, to explain the methodology; (2) for a sample product system from the ecoinvent database, for illustrative purposes; and (3) for thousands of product systems from ecoinvent databases. RESULTS AND DISCUSSION: The uncertainty of network models is indeed greater than that of corresponding tree models. This is shown mathematically for the analytical approximation method to uncertainty propagation and is observed for Monte Carlo simulations with very large numbers of iterations. However, the magnitude of the difference in indicators of dispersion is, for the ecoinvent product systems, often less than a factor of 1.5. In few extreme cases, indicators of dispersion are different by a factor of 4. Monte Carlo simulations with smaller numbers of iterations sometimes give the opposite result. CONCLUSIONS: Given the small magnitude of the difference, we believe that breaking away from the default approach is generally not warranted. Indeed, (1) the alternative approach is not more robust, (2) the current default approach is conservative, and (3) there are more pressing challenges for the LCA community to meet. This being said, the study focused on ecoinvent, which should normally be used as a background database. The difference in dispersion between the two approaches may be important in some contexts, and calculating the uncertainty of tree models as a sensitivity analysis could be useful.