Several tools exist for the analysis of the environmental impacts of chains or networks of processes. These relatively simple tools include materials flow accounting (MFA), substance flow analysis (SFA), life‐cycle assessment (LCA), energy analysis, and environmentally extended input‐output analysis (IOA), all based on fixed input‐output relations. They are characterized by the nature of their flow objects, such as products, materials, energy, substances, or money flows, and by their spatial and temporal characteristics. These characteristics are insufficient for their methodological characterization, and sometimes lead to inappropriate use. More clarity is desirable, both for clearer guidance of applications and for a more consistent methodology development. In addition to the nature of the flow object and to spatial and temporal characteristics, another key feature concerns the way in which processes are included in a system to be analyzed.
The inclusion of processes can be done in two fundamentally different ways: according to a full mode of analysis, with the inclusion of all flows and related processes to their full extent as present in a region in a specific period of time; and according to an attribution mode, taking processes into account insofar as these are required for a given social demand, function, or activity, in principle whenever and wherever these processes take place. This distinction, which cuts across families of tools that traditionally belong together, appears to have significant methodological and practical implications. Thus the distinction between the two modes of analysis, however crucial it may be, strengthens the idea of one coherent family of tools for environmental systems analysis.