Estimation of the size of error introduced into consequential models by using attributional background datasets

Abstract

Purpose

A systematic comparison is made of attributional and consequential results for the same products using the same unit process database, thus isolating the effect of the two system models. An analysis of this nature has only recently been made possible due to the ecoinvent database version 3 providing an access to both unallocated and unlinked unit process datasets as well as both attributional and consequential models based on these datasets. The analysis is therefore limited to the system models provided by ecoinvent.

Methods

For both system models, the analysis was made on the life cycle inventory analysis (LCIA) results as published by ecoinvent (692 impact categories from different methods, for 11,650 product/activity combinations). The comparison was made on the absolute difference relative to the smallest absolute value.

Results and discussion

The comparison provides quantified results showing that the consequential modelling provides large differences in results when the unconstrained (marginal) suppliers have much more/less impact than the average, when analysing the by-products, and when analysing determining products from activities with important amounts of other coproducts.

Conclusions

The analysis confirms that for consequential studies, attributional background datasets are not appropriate as a substitute for consequential background. The overall error will of course depend on the extent to which attributional modelling is used as part of the overall system model. While the identified causes of differences between the attributional and consequential models are of general nature, the identified sizes of the errors are specific to the way the two models are implemented in ecoinvent.

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Correspondence to Bo P. Weidema.

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Responsible editor: Shabbir Gheewala

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Weidema, B.P. Estimation of the size of error introduced into consequential models by using attributional background datasets. Int J Life Cycle Assess 22, 1241–1246 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-016-1239-x

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Keywords

  • Attributional modelling
  • Comparison
  • Consequential modelling
  • Coproducts
  • Decision support
  • Marginal suppliers