Numerical approaches to life cycle interpretation: The case of the Ecoinvent ’96 database

Heijungs R, Suh S, Kleijn R (2005)

Publication info

International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 10(2):103-112


Goal, Scope and Background

To strengthen the evaluative power of LCA, life cycle interpretation should be further developed. A previous contribution (Heijungs & Kleijn 2001) elaborated five examples of concrete methods within the subset of numerical approaches towards interpretation. These methods were: contribution analysis, perturbation analysis, uncertainty analysis, comparative analysis, and discernibility analysis. Developments in software have enabled the possibility to apply the five example methods to explore the much-used Ecoinvent”96 database.

Discussion of Methods

The numerical approaches implemented in this study include contribution analysis, perturbation analysis, uncertainty analysis, comparative analysis, discernibility analysis and the newly developed key issue analysis. The data used comes from a very large process database: Ecoinvent’96, containing 1163 processes, 1181 economic flows and 571 environmental flows.


Results are twofold: they serve as a benchmark to the usefulness and feasibility of these numerical approaches, and they shed light on the question of stability and structure in an often-used large system of interconnected processes. Most of the approaches perform quite well: computation time on a moderate PC is between a few seconds a few minutes. Only Monte Carlo analyses may require much longer, but even then it appears that most questions can be answered within a few hours. Moreover, analytical expressions for error propagation are much faster than Monte Carlo analyses, while giving almost identical results. Despite the fact that many processes are connected to each other, leading to the possibility of a very unstable system and very sensitive coefficients, the overall results show that most results are not extremely uncertain. There are, however, some exceptions to this positive message.

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