Time for life cycle science to stand up

I was recently at a United Nations/SETAC Life Cycle Inventory (LCI) workshop on knowledge mining.  There was a great deal of discussion about mining of data and knowledge, and how to use them.  There was tension in the room about how far we can generalise learning from LCA and use it in other applications for businesses and communities in both developed and developing countries.

Bo Weidema made a presentation.  He said that we don’t need knowledge mining.  His point was that we already have the knowledge and amazing learning from LCA, and we need to get this knowledge into areas where it can lead to action.

It occurred to me that the scientific community is actually terrible at making a stand and getting information out into broader policy and community debate.

When it suits, businesses will use scientific information to support their products and services.  This is reasonable and to be expected but will not usually challenge the status quo and inertia of current capital investment.

NGOs work hard to challenge environmental issues, but they often focus on the pressure points where problems manifest and not on the underlying systemic causes. Even if an underlying cause is identified, the complex feedbacks and burden-shifting may not be well-understood.

The scientific community is hopeless at pushing its message, and the life cycle assessment community could be the worst.  We focus on what we don’t know rather than what we do.  We look at exceptions rather than the general rule.  We’re scared to call a spade a spade in case it’s a joker.  Perhaps this comes from the early days of LCA when we first found out that our earlier thinking was wrong, and now we have lost trust in the certainty of what we know.  We also have an inbuilt incentive never to complete a study, as the financial imperative is to continue to do research.

With climate change, which is the most pressing environmental issue we have ever faced, providing strong driver to generalise knowledge and make decisions, we risk being bypassed.

So who can stand up and promote the learning from LCA and push it with education and advocacy?  UNEP/SETAC is an option, but they may not be able to take a position against some industries.  Talk of ‘consuming different’ and not ‘consuming less’ outlines how politically difficult it is for UNEP to call a spade a spade.

So then, who?  Scientists remain terrible communicators, and we don’t have enough centuries of resources to teach them to do it well.  So we need a layer of passionate, life cycle-savvy people and organisations to understand and push the learning into media and policy.  New and alternative media offer opportunities, and I hope followers of this blog can help build this connection.  I know there are organisations that have been pushing the message, but their voices are alone in the wilderness.  We need many more voices. 

September 12, 2011 at 11:19 am Leave a comment

Biofuels for aviation: a sustainable solution?

On a recent AirChinaflight, I saw a short film produced by the airline on the development of biofuels for aviation. 

The film took a detailed look at fossil fuel dependence and strategies to deal with it, including efficiencies and new aviation technology.  It outlined the increasing role of alternatives – renewable energy, electric vehicles, nuclear power, and so on, but stated that none of these solutions will be ready soon enough or useful for aircraft in the near term.  It proposed that biofuels are the one solution for the airline industry and outlined the consortium of companies working on this: Boeing, Air China and Honeywell, to name a few.

Two interesting points occurred to me:

1. The trialling and production of different biofuels are far advanced.  While Europe and Australia have slowed in their embrace of biofuels, China appears to be very active in the development of biodiesel, at least.

2. The issue is complex.  The film explained the carbon cycle and its role in ensuring biofuels are low CO2 emitters.  It referred to Jatropha crops and algae and used the term ‘second generation’ biofuels, which refers to fuel made from waste and dedicated non-food crops.  It also mentioned that these second generation fuels do not compete with food production.  Of course, this may be directly true, but indirectly anything that requires land for production potentially competes with food production.

I find myself conflicted over the biofuels question.

Many LCA results show that biofuels have lower impacts for fuel depletion and greenhouse gases (although the latter is by no means guaranteed) but higher impacts for land and water. 

It is interesting that with all the development of modern society and concerns over chemicals, radiation and depleting mineral resources, the main stressor is likely to be the same one we’ve faced for thousands of years – land productivity, represented by the combined resources of soil, water and sunlight.  The problem is exacerbated as we move towards an era in which historical reserves of this productivity – fossil fuels, are either scarce or limited by the biosphere’s ability to cope with increased CO2 released from the long-term store.

There are few solutions, however.  And here I am on a flight as one of the world’s many consumers of international air travel.  I am on my way to an environment conference and two related meetings in Europe, which will be very valuable but perhaps not essential.  If the full cost of the flights including carbon, pollution and fuel production impacts were taken into account, then perhaps the trip would be more expensive.  At the very least, that might make alternatives, such as online meetings, a more likely option.

September 1, 2011 at 6:13 pm 1 comment

The reality of marginal suppliers

Here’s another insight from the carbon footprint session at the recent AIFST (Australian Institute of Food Science and Technology) convention: Look at marginal suppliers when considering real world examples in LCA.

Marginal suppliers are those suppliers able to increase (or decrease) their supply when demand for their product or commodity increases (or decreases).

Most traditional LCAs model an average of all suppliers, or use the supplier geographically closest to the point of consumption. While this seems to make sense, in many cases it doesn’t reflect reality. One such instance came to mind at the AIFST convention.

Anthony Peyton from Greenchip Consulting presented the LCA undertaken for Aldi’s olive oil product. The olives used for oil production come from four countries: Tunisia, Spain, Italy and Turkey. Each country has a different profile for growing olives and different impacts from the harvest. From my memory, the Italian olive production and harvesting process results in the lowest impacts. Now, an obvious strategy for Aldi would be to source the olives for their carbon-certified product from the lowest impact region; that is, Italy. However, production in Italy is likely to be highly constrained by the availability of land, with little capacity to expand. It is possible for Aldi to buy up a greater percentage of Italian olives, depending on existing supply contracts. However, this would displace other buyers into alternative regions for their supply, probably Tunisia which has been expanding olive production over the last decade.

While this is interesting from a modelling point of view, what does it mean for decision-making and conceptualising green products? These are the really important questions.

Should we reward ‘good’ – that is, low-impact – producers, even if their production is so constrained that any financial or moral reward can’t actually lead them to increase production and thus replace ‘bad’ or high-impact producers?

Is a producer responsible enough if they do all they can to lower the impact of their own product, whatever effect this has on other producers’ supply? 

Certainly, competition for low-impact products that are constrained should encourage innovation to find new alternative low-impact supplies. On the other hand, false idols – ‘green’ products that don’t actually lead to lower environmental impacts – may out-compete alternative products that do genuinely reduce impacts. They may also stop consumers from realising that, for some products, there are no low-impact options – except to reduce purchase of the product in the first place.

August 16, 2011 at 2:44 pm

Carbon labeling and LCA

I just presented at the 44th  Annual Convention of the Australian Institute of Food Science and Technology  in a session on carbon labeling. My topic was ‘Life Cycle Assessment and Carbon Footprints’. I asked whether carbon footprints are a good thing and how they relate to LCA.

A Good Thing –  absolutely. We moan about the limited scope, but carbon footprints are bringing life cycle to the masses in ways LCA never could, nor perhaps should.

Three LCA questions arise from the broad scale adoption of carbon footprints:

1. Is carbon (read climate change) special?

More special than the other 17 impact areas used in LCA? (See recipe method for these.) Yes – for two reasons:

  • Carbon is the building block of organic matter and the principal component of fossil fuels, which are central to the transformation of material in the modern industrial economy. Carbon is everywhere and used by everything, making substitution and alternative uses very difficult.
  • The impact of climate change is not localised but represents a shift in so many global systems with such widespread and as yet unknown consequences that acid rain will look like a tea party.

2. Are carbon footprints a good proxy?

Yes – for energy, and energy is a great proxy for many other impacts. Some authors have looked at the correlation of energy and the ecoindicator 99, a broad-based environmental indicator, and shown that it is a good predictor for many sectors. Energy in its many forms more often than not dominates indicators such as:

  • acidification (acid rain – through sulphur and nitrogen oxide emissions)
  • eutrophication (algae growth – through nitrogen oxide emissions)
  • human and eco-toxic indicators (through the many metals and organic compounds emitted from fuel combustion)
  • solid waste (through coal ash production).

To a lesser extent, it can be a major water user (for cooling in coal-fired power stations) and land user (for hydro reservoirs, transmission lines and road networks for transport). But these tend to be swamped by agricultural uses (excuse the pun).

3. When will carbon footprints not align and possibly compete with other indicators?

Some indicators are not related to energy and greenhouse gases (GHGs) in particular product systems. These include ozone depletion, nutrient runoff from agriculture, toxic emissions from fertiliser application or processes which generate toxic emissions through water processes. End-of-pipe pollution control normally involves additional energy and GHG impacts to reduce or contain toxic emissions, be they metals, nutrients or other polluting substances.  However, the most important tension is between GHGs, land use and water use. Land can be used to sequester carbon or produce fuels which avoid the need to consume and burn fossil fuels (effectively reducing carbon emissions). Water can be used to increase the productivity of land, allowing it to produce more biomass and so avoid more fossil fuels. Water extraction from the environment can be avoided through the recycling of water or the production of desalinated water, both of which will come with increased GHG impacts. So water, land and GHGs are three limiting connected factors which need to be balanced, with land and water physically constrained by the planet, and GHG constrained by the planet’s ability to cope with its emissions.

If the carbon footprint label needs one key innovation, it would be a ‘no additional land or water use’ test.

July 12, 2011 at 7:11 am Leave a comment


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