Ward, H.; Wenz, L.; Steckel, J.C.; Minx, J.C.

Truncation Error Estimates in Process Life Cycle Assessment Using Input-Output Analysis

in Journal of Industrial Ecology, 19.09.2017

Peer Review , Applied Sustainability Sciences , Climate and Development

Process life cycle assessment (PLCA) is widely used to quantify environmental flows associated with the manufacturing of products and other processes. As PLCA always depends on defining a system boundary, its application involves truncation errors. Different methods of estimating truncation errors are proposed in the literature; most of these are based on artificially constructed system complete counterfactuals. In this article, we review the literature on truncation errors and their estimates and systematically explore factors that influence truncation error estimates. We classify estimation approaches, together with underlying factors influencing estimation results according to where in the estimation procedure they occur. By contrasting different PLCA truncation/error modeling frameworks using the same underlying input-output (I-O) data set and varying cut-off criteria, we show that modeling choices can significantly influence estimates for PLCA truncation errors. In addition, we find that differences in I-O and process inventory databases, such as missing service sector activities, can significantly affect estimates of PLCA truncation errors. Our results expose the challenges related to explicit statements on the magnitude of PLCA truncation errors. They also indicate that increasing the strictness of cut-off criteria in PLCA has only limited influence on the resulting truncation errors. We conclude that applying an additional I-O life cycle assessment or a path exchange hybrid life cycle assessment to identify where significant contributions are located in upstream layers could significantly reduce PLCA truncation errors.