Future scenarios and life cycle assessment: systematic review and recommendations

V. Bisinella*, T. H. Christensen, T. F. Astrup

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

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    Future scenarios and life cycle assessment (LCA) are powerful tools that can provide early sustainability assessments of novel products, technologies and systems. The combination of the two methods involves practical and conceptual challenges, but formal guidance and consensus on a rigorous approach are currently missing. This study provides a comprehensive overview of how different topic areas use future scenarios and LCA in order to identify useful methods and approaches, and to provide overall recommendations.

    This study carried out a systematic literature review that involved searching for peer-reviewed articles on Web of Science, Scopus and Science Direct, utilising a rigorous set of keywords for future scenarios and for LCA. We identified 514 suitable peer-reviewed articles that were systematically analysed according to pre-defined sets of characteristics for the combined modelling of future scenarios and LCA.

    Results and discussion
    The numbers of studies combining future scenarios and LCA increase every year and in all of the 15 topic areas identified. This combination is highly complex, due to different sequences in the modelling between future scenarios and LCA, the use of additional models and topic area-specific challenges. We identify and classify studies according to three archetypal modelling sequences: input, output and hybrid. More than 100 studies provide methods and approaches for combining future scenarios and LCA, but existing recommendations are specific to topic areas and for modelling sequences, and consensus is still missing. The efficacy of many studies is hampered by lack of quality. Only half of the articles complied with the LCA ISO standards, and only one quarter demonstrated consistent knowledge of future scenario theory. We observed inconsistent use of terminology and a considerable lack of clarity in the descriptions of methodological choices, assumptions and time frames.

    Conclusions and Recommendations

    The combined use of future scenarios and LCA requires formal guidance, in order to increase clarity and communicability. Guidance should provide unambiguous definitions, identify minimum quality requirements and produce mandatory descriptions of modelling choices. The goal and scope of future scenarios and LCA should be in accordance, and quality should be ensured both for the future scenarios and the LCA. In particular, future scenarios should always be developed contextually, to ensure effective assessment of the problem at hand. Guidance should also allow for maintaining current modelling complexity and topic area differences. We provide recommendations from the reference literature on terminology, future scenario development and the combined use of future scenarios and LCA that may already constitute preliminary guidance in the field. Information collected and recommendations provided will assist in a more balanced development of the combined use of future scenarios and LCA in view of the urgent challenges of sustainable development.
    Original languageEnglish
    JournalInternational Journal of Life Cycle Assessment
    Pages (from-to)2143–2170
    Number of pages28
    Publication statusPublished - 2021


    • Life cycle assessment
    • LCA
    • Future scenarios
    • Foresight
    • Prospective
    • Ex-ante
    • Archetypes


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