Non-linearity in the Life Cycle Assessment of Scalable and Emerging Technologies

Massimo Pizzol, Romain Sacchi, Susanne Köhler, Annika Anderson Erjavec

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


Given a fixed product system model, with the current computational framework of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) the potential environmental impacts associated to demanding one thousand units of a product will be one thousand times larger than what results from demanding 1 unit only – a linear relationship. However, due to economies of scale, industrial synergies, efficiency gains, and system design, activities at different scales will perform differently in terms of life cycle impact – in a non-linear way. This study addresses the issue of using the linear framework of LCA to study scalable and emerging technologies, by looking at different examples where technology scale up reflects non-linearly on the impact of a product. First, a computer simulation applied to an entire database is used to quantitatively estimate the effect of assuming activities in a product system are subject to improvements in efficiency. This provides a theoretical but indicative idea of how much uncertainty can be introduced by non linear relationships between input values and results at the database level. Then the non-linear relations between the environmental burden per tkm of transport on one end, and the cargo mass and range autonomy on the other end is highlighted using a parametrized LCA model for heavy goods vehicles combined with learning scenarios that reflect different load factors and improvement in battery technology. Finally, a last example explores the case of activities related to the mining of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, an emerging technology, and how the impact of scaling the Bitcoin mining production is affected non-linearly by factors such as increase in mining efficiency and geographical distribution of miners. The paper concludes by discussing the relation between non-linearity and uncertainty and by providing recommendations for accounting for non-linearity in prospective LCA studies.
Original languageEnglish
Article number611593
JournalFrontiers in Sustainability
Pages (from-to)1
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - 2021


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