The Relation between Prospective IE Models and MFA, LCA, and I/O Analysis

The prospective IE models are built upon the established IE methods MFA, LCA, and IOA. They are integrated hybrid models of society's metabolism, in the sense that they combine a foreground system with high level of detail and strict adherence to core modeling principles such as mass balance with a generic background system. The background provides the foreground with auxiliary input, such as electricity supply for material production, and uses the products exclusively supplied by the foreground as intermediate requirements in turn.

The foreground of extended dynamic MFA comprises dynamic stock models of the materials and products studied and process models of the industries that are part of the material cycles studied. The foreground system is balanced for the products and material that are within the scope, and the background system supplies energy and other ancillary inputs to operate the stocks and processes in the foreground. Environmental impact assessment is carried out for the satellite accounts of relevant emissions from both foreground and background. Because extended dynamic MFA contains process models, considers the background economy, and uses impact assessment, one can also consider these models as macro-LCAs of the total service provided by the stocks studied, carried out as dynamic studies with scenarios for future development. The foreground model of extended dynamic MFA contains markets at all stages, preserves co-production, and contains rules for substituting secondary material for primary material. It can therefore be reformulated as combination of a physical waste-I/O model with the by-product technology assumption combined with a dynamic stock model of the products studied.

THEMIS integrates LCA and I/O modeling and combines the so-obtained hybrid model of interindustry flows with environmental impact assessment via satellite accounts. It also contains elements that are commonly found in dynamic MFA: THEMIS's foreground system is coupled to a dynamic stock model of electricity generation assets, so that material demand for building new assets and recycling of old ones is determined from the turnover of the capital stock in mass-balanced manner.

The Relation between Prospective IE Models and Consequential LCA

The desire to study the potential future consequences of a decision has been a longstanding motivation for industrial ecology research, and a few recent examples were cited above. In LCA, this desire has led to the concept of consequential life-cycle assessment (CLCA), which “is designed to generate information on the consequences of a decision” (Ekvall and Weidema 2004). While the concept of a consequential LCA is intriguing, it is also poorly defined and subject of controversy (Brandão et al. 2014; Dale and Kim 2014; Finnveden et al. 2009; Hertwich 2014; Plevin et al. 2014a; Suh and Yang 2014; Zamagni et al. 2012). CLCA was initially defined as a result of the debate on how to allocate emissions and inputs of processes with multiple products to the respective outputs. It focused on the marginal effect of producing an additional unit of output of a specific product or of recycling such a product (Ekvall and Weidema 2004). Such allocation problems are addressed through systems expansion in CLCA, so that the assessment of a product depends not only on the product system of the investigated product but also on the product systems of other products and, in particular, the production volumes of and demand for those products. This dependence on other product systems is most clearly visible when scientists, under the heading of “consequential LCA,” address the question of what happens to constrained resources when a product is not produced. In the opinion of some, the consequential life-cycle emissions of a bicycle should include those of combusting the petrol that it does not use because somebody else will combust that petrol as a response of the market to the bicycle not using that petrol (Plevin et al. 2014a, b). One of us (Hertwich 2014) has questioned whether it makes sense to say that the petrol not combusted by the bicycle is part of the product system “bicycle” only because one could have used a car instead. It is also problematic to say that riding the bicycle to work causes petrol combustion somewhere else in the economy due to price elasticity. The petrol combustion is rather the consequence of somebody else's decision somewhere else in the economy.

It is of course a legitimate research questions to ask, e.g., what is the effect of the massive and intended expansion of cycling in Copenhagen on GHG emissions? The question, however, remains ill-defined until one juxtaposes the observed or planned expansion of cycling to some counterfactual possible scenario of increased car or bus transport. In addition, one needs to define the scope and functioning of the system investigated, including the causal mechanisms to be addressed. Mechanisms may or may not include the fuel market response to the petrol demand in the counterfactual scenario, the effect of the inspiration Copenhagen now provides to town planners all over the world and the effect of increased life expectancy of the cyclists on food demand and future economic development. Then one has two scenarios to compare, and one may colloquially argue the difference between the scenarios that indicates the effect of Copenhagen's cycling policy and the enthusiastic popular response it has received. Such causality is an imputed, assumed causality; the assumptions are made in the setup of the systems model and the definition of the scenarios and the imputation in the interpretation of the scenario results as showing the difference. Other system models and scenario assumptions may be equally reasonable; the true consequences are unmeasurable because we do not have a second Earth to run an experiment on.

The early developers of systems expansion as a way of addressing allocation issues fully understood that system expansion involved assumptions about other product systems and that results should be interpreted with these assumptions in mind.

We expand our above argument regarding the predictive capacity of prospective models for indeterminate systems and assert that the hypothetical CLCA approach as described by Plevin et al. (2014a) faces a dilemma: The capability of the hypothetical CLCA model to reliably predict the future outcome is the better the smaller the changes to the system and the shorter the time horizon, because fewer human actors, who are the major source of indeterminacy, are involved if changes are small and local and the inertia represented by existing stocks is larger in the near future.

Modeling on the small scale with short time horizons is the opposite of what is needed for studying strategies for a socio-metabolic transition, however, and for large-scale and long-term changes, prediction remains an illusion. Therefore, we need a practical and scientifically credible implementation of the ideal represented by the hypothetical CLCA approach.

In our opinion, prospective IE models provide such implementation. The scenario approach makes explicit the underlying exogenous assumptions that necessarily accompany any prospective model of an indeterminate system. Several authors, including Zamagni et al. (2012), Plevin et al. (2014a), and Suh and Yang (2014), acknowledge the importance of scenario modeling for the scientific assessment of decision-making in general and the questions posed by CLCA in particular. The use of a comprehensive model of society's metabolism allows us to study the system with the high level of detail and biophysical consistency that is a distinctive feature of industrial ecology methods. The combination of the scenario approach and a detailed model of society's metabolism make prospective IE models a powerful and scientifically credible approach to explore the potential consequences of decisions.

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