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The Climate Encyclical and Biophysical Limits

A recent commentary in Nature Climate Change by Paul Ehrlich and John Harte highlighted an important limitation in the Pope’s Climate Encyclical and its recommendations for fighting climate change. Although it is a passionate and compelling call for enormous changes in our global society, it lacked cohesion in terms of solving the two inseparable issues of inequality and demographic growth. The Climate Encyclical states quite clearly that the biophysical limits of our Earth ought to not stand in the way of our push for equality while simultaneously allowing with open arms unfettered demographic growth as this passage from the Climate Encyclical states:

Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of ‘reproductive health’. Yet while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development. To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues (§50).

If one peers deeper into the complexities of inequality, the economy and biophysical limits of Earth, the realization that continued demographic growth is not compatible with sustainable development will likely arise. After all, more people equates to more resources required from a finite planet that is already surging past its safe operating capacity. “More people using more fossil fuels means more climate change; more people eating more food means more land conversion (with associated loss of biodiversity), more overdraft of groundwater for irrigation, and more pressure on threatened marine resources; and more people consuming more material goods potentially means more toxic waste products and more mining.”

Humans are not stupid: we tend for the lowest hanging fruits first. Think back when copper could be picked up with near 100% purity like a rock from the river, and now we are digging farther than 1 km below the surface to mine copper ore of no more than 3% purity. Think back when oil gushed from the ground with little drilling challenge, and now we are forced to turn to oil sands, and more challenging still, the Artic circle, in order to appease our ever increasing demand for oil. It does not take a genius to understand we are on a resource extraction trajectory requiring ever more energy and chemical-intense techniques for rendering the pure and useful compounds and metals that we demand both for necessity and for sheer desire. We’ve created an obvious trend where increasingly difficult resource extraction results in greater environmental impact. Humanity’s Impact on the planet invariably boils down to the multiplication of the variables–though globally diverse–Population, Affluence and Technology (aka the I=PAT equation). If P(opulation) or both P and A(ffluence) increase then we put ever more pressure on T(echnology) to ensure a reduced environmental impact. If we allow A and P to grow without concern we are putting all of our risks into the technology bucket. We cannot put all of our faith in the green or the nano or the nuclear fusion revolution to save us from our clear and present predicament. There are likely no quick fixes just like there is no such thing as a free lunch. Allowing demographic growth while simultaneously allowing the poor to catch up with the rich would create nothing more than an even faster runaway train chugging towards the precipitous edge of sudden economic and ecosystem collapse.

These two issues of demographic growth and inequality are so intertwined with multifaceted layers of complexity that we would be foolish to try and treat them separately. “Focusing on only half the source of, or half the potential solution to, a complex problem can be nearly as ineffective as ignoring the problem altogether, when both factors jointly determine the outcome.” Biophysical limits of Earth will simply not allow everyone–at least with our current technology–to live like an average upper-middle-class person from a developed nation and this is something that policymakers need to understand. Demographic growth will not make the solving of our inequality issues any easier and we already have so much to fix already with our current population and our skewed distribution of wealth.

“Those who champion increased equality as a means of achieving global food security must team up with those who urge curbing over-consumption and humane transitioning to a much reduced and thus sustainable population. Otherwise, the new political and economic institutions desperately needed to redirect humanity toward sustainable food security and away from the fiction of perpetual growth will not evolve.” As Genesis 1:28 has commanded, we have been fruitful and we have multiplied and subdued the Earth. Perhaps we have done enough multiplying and subduing and we should now focus more on achieving a sustainable balance with nature, a balance where the Church’s obsession with abortion and contraception  is dissolved and exchanged for  a leadership role in family planning and women’s rights.

Changing your Diet Could Have Huge Land Use and Greenhouse Gas Implications

We all have within our power an incredibly effective way of reducing our planetary impacts:  embarking on your sustainability diet pathway. The concept is quite simple. Every person needs to take stock of their current diet and better understand two things: firstly, what impacts do your foody habits have on the planet; and secondly, what can you change in your diet to significantly reduce your food induced environmental footprint.

To illustrate the diet direction that we all ought to consider, I rely on a recent study that modelled our planetary impacts in the year 2050 with the very important assumption that our human population reaches nine billion inhabitants. The authors of this study simulate a planetary ecosystem and economy where the entire human population of Earth is on one of the following five diet variants as listed here:

  1. A reference diet, meaning our business-as-usual recent diet trends which encapsulate the good, the bad and the ugly of our regionally diverse, highly inequitable and majority high meat content that our diets have become.
  2. A ‘Healthy Diet’, as defined by the Harvard Medical School. This diet allows you to consume all meat sources (avoiding processed meats) in moderation while the bulk of your calorific intake should consist of fruits and vegetables. The Healthy Diet, and subsequent diets below, emphasize the need to eat in moderation avoiding any excessive over-eating habits.
  3. A no ruminant diet, is quite similar to the Healthy Diet only now no ruminant based meat (e.g. beef,  goat, sheep, buffalo) is allowed in your diet.
  4. A no meat (i.e. vegetarian) diet, where only dairy based animal products are permitted in your diet.
  5. A no animal (i.e. vegan) diet, meaning only plant/fungi based foods are permitted.

This study, entitled ‘Climate benefits of changing diet’, ensured that with the reference alternatives, every one of the nine billion human beings on the planet projected in 2050 would be nourished in a healthy and equitable fashion. Therefore, the reference alternatives (diet variants 2-5 above) would lead to a much healthier global population than our currently unbalanced food system. These four diet variants (2-5) can be seen as a sustainability diet pathway to embark upon, because in the equivalent order that these diets are presented above, they lead progressively towards less environmental impacts. The results from this study are actually quite amazing and I’ve illustrated the main findings in this short video below (please share!).

Certainly the models used to generate these astounding results require simplifying a great number of assumptions. However, the models utilized are among the best global integrated assessment models available in the world relying on years of research and refinement. The authors also undertook a number of sensitivity analyses to ensure their main findings were robust. Even if these findings are half the magnitude as they were presented, there is still ample justification to assume that these four diet variants progressively achieve less planetary impact in the proposed order as listed above.  Therefore, these diet variants provide us with an easy rule of thumb to follow if we wish to strive to achieve a diet that is considerably better for the planet.

Some of you may also be wondering what about fish? Although fish consumption was not modeled in any of the reference alternatives, this high protein meat sources generally has a life cycle environmental impact falling somewhere between chicken and pulses (like soy). (see above video for further context). However, as with most complicated systems in life, the devil is in the details. If your fish is flown halfway around the globe before landing on your plate, impacts can sky rocket towards similar greenhouse gas emission per unit protein as beef sources. So beware! The eat local mantra should be practiced to the best of your ability.

Back to those devils in the details: what major limitations do you feel need to be addressed in such an analysis? We’d all be thankful to hear your words of insight, caution, or skepticism.

LCA Inc: A brief history of life cycle assessment in the corporate world

LCA’s Beginnings

The initial seeds of LCA’s conception reach back as far as the 1950s when ideas about bioeconomics and systems ecology were formalized in Samuel Ordway’s ‘Resources and the American Dream‘ and Eugene and Howard Odum’s ‘Fundamentals of Ecology‘. However, most LCA practitioners track LCA’s humble beginnings back to the year of 1969 when Coca Cola hired the MidWestern Research Institute to conduct a material and energy flow study of their packaging alternatives. The study consisted of a comparative analysis between returnable glass bottles, primary aluminium and plastic alternatives. Harry Teasley, the Coca Cola executive who initiated the study was conscious of the need for environmental knowledge for both internal planning purposes and for public relations. Study findings suggested that plastic measured far better than the other alternatives, however, it took a number of years before Coca Cola began the switch to plastic. The MRI defined their technique as “Resource and Environmental Profile Analysis” and it was based on a “cradle to grave” systems analysis of the production chain of the investigated products.

This led to LCA’s period of conception throughout the 1970s and 1980s (spilling into the early ’90s) during a time when environmental issues such as resource and energy efficiency, pollution control and solid waste management became important to the public at large. During this time firms applied diverging life cycle techniques largely for the purpose of substantiating market claims. This time of uncoordinated efforts often led to competing firms challenging one another’s products where studies of the same products often saw widely differing results (e.g. the cloth vs. disposable diaper debates between the pro-cloth National Association of Diaper Services and pro-disposable Proctor & Gamble).

The early to late 1990s ushered in a decade of LCA standardization and convergence where a number of workshops, forums and published academic articles began to appear. This decade began to see international coordinated LCA involvement with the likes of the International Standards Organization (ISO) and the Society for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC). ISO eventually harmonized the LCA process with the still current ISO standards, ISO 14040 and ISO 14044. LCA then became far more credible and corporations began to adopt the technique more readily.

What LCA is, and what LCA is Trying to be

Highly esteemed science writer Daniel Goleman predicted that LCA would be a major game changer. In his book entitled ‘Ecological Intelligence‘ he described how LCA practitioners could measure material and energy flows and associated environmental impacts of products with ‘near-surgical precision’. In reality LCA actually measures only the potential environmental impact and tends to fall far short of attaining a high level of certainty in the final results. Since the global economy is essentially connected across vastly complex supply chains, the very concept of LCA’s cradle-to-grave analysis entails the accounting of essentially everything; this however, is an impossible task. The technique rather involves the application of scientific based modelling to account for the most prominent processes in a given value chain so that the major or most likely hot-spots of the system are guaranteed coverage.

Many see LCA as the essential accounting technique to sound and sober sustainability decision making. As stated in the ISO standard 14040, LCA is a technique that considers ‘the entire life cycle of a product or service and all attributes or aspects of natural environment, human health and resources’. The major insights that LCA can provide an organization about their products or services are two fold: firstly, LCA objectively ascertains exactly where the environmental hot-spots of the value chain are located (often in very unexpected places); and secondly, LCA examines several environmental impact categories such as climate change, ozone depletion, resource scarcity, acidification and human toxicity and this allows for an analysis of possible trade-offs between two or more competing functionally equivalent products or designs. LCA then becomes particularly useful in the initial design phase of a product, service or policy. As LCA advances, LCA Practitioners are always trying to reach towards the impossible task of modelling the global economy in its entirety and this pursuit likely won’t letup anytime soon.

LCA’s Big Break in the Corporate World: Walmart

Walmart had concocted a dream of undertaking 10,000 or so LCAs in order to attain a detailed LCA of every single product that they sold. With the finances to back this vision Walmart broke into the LCA world with a lot of enthusiasm and momentum. In July 2009 they announced their ‘Sustainability Index‘ that would cover a product’s entire life cycle, from resource extraction through to disposal. This led to what is now termed the Sustainability Consortium which currently boasts more than 80 corporate members, operates on four continents and since late 2012 has worked with the much larger Consumer Goods Forum to establish ‘a globally harmonized science-based approach to measure and communicate life cycles‘. There are a number of similar green initiatives around the world where LCA has gained a high degree of popularity. What was once a rather unpopular, academic and dare I say geeky system of accounting turned into the go-to approach for corporate and government initiatives to measure, disclose, inform policy and improve existing products’ cradle-to-grave environmental impacts. The corporate supply chain itself has become a breeding ground for knowledge and insight of a company’s operations and its big picture implications.

For the majority of LCA’s existence, it has for the most part been situated in a place where academics told industry that LCA will benefit you and therefore you should utilize it. With the initiatives of Walmart it really helped to open the flood gates of LCA application, where it is now industry that inquires with LCA consultancies that they need that tool. LCA has reached a renaissance where even the big four (Deloitte, PwC, Ernst & Young, and KPMG) have adopted it into their toolbox along with many other specialized consultancies (like Ecogamut!) where they are finding a growing demand.

LCA in industry has not been a total success however. The methodological rigor required to undertake a detailed LCA brings upon several challenges with industry: LCAs can be time consuming and cost thousands of dollars to undertake; LCAs can become too complicated for the public and results do not always turn out in favor of the companies best financial interest; more supply chain transparency can lead to greater vulnerability and potentially moral disquiet. These challenges can lead to industry misuse of LCA, which in turn harms its reputation. A notable quote from Oscar Wilde, “The truth is never pure and rarely simple” and many LCA practitioners struggle to avoid the muddy waters of complexity, data gaps and what the funding corporation wants to hear.

Signs that LCA is Here to Stay

Despite this industry unease, LCA has already proved itself to be a popular tool in both the corporate and governmental world. There are a great number of signs that LCA is thriving and will likely only get better. All companies face rising resource costs, and many are dealing with growing pressures for transparency requiring that they account for and better manage both the environmental and social impacts throughout their supply chain. LCA is one of the best tools to provide this transparency and it also protects companies from the accusation of ‘greenwash’. European Union regulations now require lawmakers to apply life cycle thinking when undertaking waste management decisions. Many European governments have looked to LCA to inform them about key policy decisions covering key sectors as recycling, public transport, food labeling and renewable energy production.

In the United States, both federal and California biofuel standards draw on LCA results. It is common practice for greenhouse gas emission reduction initiatives to require an LCA framework for quantifying reductions. China, Chile, New Zealand and others are investing in LCA research programs and LCA database development, not only for their own benefit, but in anticipation of an encroaching need to better inform global corporations of their upstream impacts. Similar to the nutritional content label of food products, hundreds of companies are utilizing LCA to substantiate their product’s environmental product declaration in a certifiable and third party verified fashion. LCA has even received extensive coverage in top-ranked journal Science, where they published their June 2014 issue on the sustainability of global supply chains.

Supply chains are likely to remain a focus of corporate knowledge production and public reporting. Citizens globally have gained an insatiable demand from corporations to see demonstrable and measurable evidence that they are making progress toward supply chain sustainability. This demand may soon become a requirement, and even if it doesn’t, LCA will remain to be an important technique towards reaching the goals of a sustainable world.