Research areas Industrial Ecology

An overview of the Science of Industrial Ecology

Industrial ecology

According to Wikipedia, industrial ecology is an interdisciplinary field that focuses on the sustainable combination of environment, economy and technology.

It is a form of environmental systems analysis that focuses on the interface between the physical world and our symbolic society. It links the economy (the symbolic part of society) with the technosphere (the physical reality). In doing so, it considers the societal contexts (economics, organizations, institutions, ...), the technological systems (energy, food, transportation, ...), and the environmental repercussions (resource depletion, pollution, land and water use, ...).

The economy, covering the internal organisation of firms and households and their mutual contractual and market relations, is embedded in the broader aspects of society, covering its culture, in terms of knowledge and beliefs, its institutions, as the rules governing mutual relations, and politics, setting goals for society and ways to achieve these.

The technosphere is linked to the physical functioning of its broader environment. This has three main subsystems, the living biosphere, the a-biotic geosphere, and all remaining beyond that, that is the outer space with which we mainly have energy interactions.

The environment consists of the biosphere (the biotic part of the environment) and the geosphere, covering lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere.

Production and consumption on the on side reside at the symbolic level of consumer satisfaction and industrial contractual and market relations while at the other side covering the physical aspects involved, see the red box in figure 1.



Figure 1. Schematic representation of the symbolic layer and the physical layer, that have a common economy-technosphere interface where production and consumption reside.

CML-IE’s position in industrial ecology

The central domain of our research is the economy-technosphere, vizualized as the red cube in the figure. This focus is enlarged with aspects of the broader environment (biosphere, geosphere, land) and with aspects of the broader society (politics, culture, institutions).

Environmental models and societal models in themselves, without a linking interface, are not part of our research domain. However, they contribute to our activities in model integration.

Model integration is thus a central feature in the research of CML-IE. We combine models from a variety of fields. Examples are:

  • economic input-output analysis
  • economic equilibrium models and other market models
  • stock-flow models for materials and substances
  • thermodynamic models for energy and exergy conversion
  • physico-economic models for industrial and agricultural production
  • models for climate change
  • chemical fate and exposure models
  • atmospheric transport models
  • toxicological dose-response models


On top of that, we use specific methods and tools, such as:
  • statistical analysis, such as regression
  • agent-based models
  • matrix algebra
  • decision theory
  • modelling software, such as Matlab and Python


These models are integrated according to different rules, to address different types of question. Four main directions are:
  • life cycle assessment (LCA) for analysing and comparing products and technologies
  • material flow accounting (MFA) for analysing and benchmarking societal metabolism
  • environmental input-output analysis (EIOA) for analysing sector-wide scenarios
  • eco-efficiency analysis (E/E) for analysing and ranking the combined performance of options on environmental and economic criteria


We apply these to a variety of topics. Some examples from the past few years include:

CML-IE does not concentrate on specific domains. However, it is possible to discern an emphasis the last few years on topics such as
  • energy
  • agriculture
  • biofuels
  • waste management


Industrial ecology, focused at decision support, functions in a normative context. Norms and values guide choices and actions in society, with systems analysis supplying the normatively relevant information. The focus of analysis may be on specific decisions, e.g. as regarding Best Available Technologies or solutions to heavy metals problems. However, autonomous developments in environment and society may also be modelled from a broader systems perspective without specific decisions to be supported yet. This broader perspective may support general ideas on emerging problems and on sustainability strategies linked to these.

Last Modified: 05-01-2011