2.-0 LCA consultants https://lca-net.com Better decision-making for sustainable development Tue, 22 Oct 2019 08:36:36 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Rebound effect – beyond conventional wisdom https://lca-net.com/blog/rebound-effect-beyond-conventional-wisdom/ Tue, 22 Oct 2019 08:36:35 +0000 http://lca-net.com/?p=3625 Resource efficiency has traditionally been a key pillar of energy and broader environmental policy. This is why more efficient cars, lighting, and irrigation systems, to name a few, have been widely endorsed by both private and public management. Yet this pervasive efficiency narrative is now being challenged by the so-called rebound effect. So what is...

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Resource efficiency has traditionally been a key pillar of energy and broader environmental policy. This is why more efficient cars, lighting, and irrigation systems, to name a few, have been widely endorsed by both private and public management. Yet this pervasive efficiency narrative is now being challenged by the so-called rebound effect. So what is this rebound effect and how does it affect everyday choices?

Let’s assume a case where Mike and Penny want to replace their old car with a new one that is 10% more fuel efficient, believing they will save the environment a 10% energy use.

But what happens if the couple actually change their driving behavioural due to the perceived efficiency change? For example, they might now spend the resulting economic savings from reduced fuel use on other products, including additional driving. Also, their driving behaviour may change in light of their perceived ‘good deed’. Indeed, they may feel morally licensed to buy a bigger car, turn the AC more regularly, or even buy a second car (Santarius and Soland 2018). All of these indirect consequences constitute the so-called rebound effect. When a given resource efficiency measure leads to overall increased resource use, we speak of a backfire effect or the Jevon’s Paradox in relation to the seminal work by William Stanley Jevons (1865).

Estimating the rebound effect entails isolating the effect that any perceived efficiency plays on resource use. In other words, Penny and Mike would have needed to first estimate their current energy use, and then estimate which share would be attributable not just to driving the car, but to the change in efficiency of the new car with respect to the old one. Such a daunting task has led to multiple approaches and ultimately a polarised debate between those who argue that rebound effects are modest in size, easily addressed, and generally overplayed (Gillingham et al. 2013) and those who argue that the Jevon’s Paradox takes place in multiple contexts and a better understanding of rebound effects is needed to guide environmental policy worldwide. Some of us from the latter group have edited a Research Topic in Frontiers in Energy Research and Frontiers in Sociology entitled “The Rebound Effect and the Jevons’ Paradox: Beyond the Conventional Wisdom” (editorial).

This special issue focuses on unconventional approaches to study rebound effects. The Research Topic includes seven theoretical works and case studies that shed new insights into the study of rebound effects: from the theories of complex adaptive systems and moral licensing to applications of system dynamics and industrial ecology models.

Dr. Tamar Makov from Yale University and I contributed a paper on rebound effects from smartphone reuse going beyond the traditional focus on energy efficiency to show how rebound effects may apply to circular economy strategies (Makov and Font Vivanco 2018). We show how imperfect substitution between recycled and new products, together with re-spending of the cost savings, could erode around one third—and potentially all—of the emission savings from smartphone reuse. Could this also apply to Penny and Mike’s car?

The special issue demonstrates the limitations of the current framing of rebound effects and show how this phenomenon has deeper roots in system behaviour, human psychology, and social organisation. The articles reinforce the argument that rebound effects are larger than many have assumed, and therefore present a critical challenge for environmental sustainability.

The critical challenge is to reconcile the economic growth with sustainability ambitions and bring the rebound effect issue into the policy arena (Font Vivanco et al. 2016a). For genuine sustainability, a good understanding of rebound effects is needed to avoid unintended consequences. I believe the life cycle-based approaches combined with tools that capture complex human and broader systemic behaviour, such as econometric (Font Vivanco et al. 2016b), quasi-experimental (Makov and Font Vivanco 2018), and macro-economic (Font Vivanco et al. 2019) tools offer untapped potential for business and governmental organisations to mitigate rebound effects and achieve their sustainability targets.

References

Font Vivanco, D., Kemp, R., and van der Voet, E. (2016a). How to deal with the rebound effect? A policy-oriented approach. Energy Policy, Elsevier, 94, 114–125.

Font Vivanco, D., Nechifor, V., Freire-González, J., and Calzadilla, A. (2019). Economy-wide rebound makes UK’s electric car subsidy fall short of expectations. Renewable & Sustainable Energy Reviews, (accepted).

Font Vivanco, D., Tukker, A., and Kemp, R. (2016b). Do Methodological Choices in Environmental Modeling Bias Rebound Effects? A Case Study on Electric Cars. Environmental Science and Technology, 50(20).

Gillingham, K., Kotchen, M. J., Rapson, D. S., and Wagner, G. (2013). Energy policy: The rebound effect is overplayed. Nature, Nature Publishing Group, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. All Rights Reserved., 493(7433), 475–476.

Jevons, W. S. (1865). The Coal Question. An inquiry concerning the progress of the nation and the probable exhaustion of our coal-mines. Macmillan and co., Cambridge, UK.

Makov, T., and Font Vivanco, D. (2018). Does the Circular Economy Grow the Pie? The Case of Rebound Effects From Smartphone Reuse. Frontiers in Energy Research, Frontiers, 6, 39. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fenrg.2018.00039/full

Santarius, T., and Soland, M. (2018). How Technological Efficiency Improvements Change Consumer Preferences: Towards a Psychological Theory of Rebound Effects. Ecological Economics, Elsevier, 146, 414–424.

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Social valuation – Questions and answers https://lca-net.com/blog/social-valuation-questions-and-answers/ Mon, 09 Sep 2019 10:13:09 +0000 http://lca-net.com/?p=3430 I recently responded to a questionnaire from Copper8 on “social valuation” and thought that some of the answers might be of general interest, so I share them here: 1. What is your definition of social valuation? We normally speak of social assessment, where assessment is the full study including human activities, their interaction, the externalities...

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I recently responded to a questionnaire from Copper8 on “social valuation” and thought that some of the answers might be of general interest, so I share them here:

1. What is your definition of social valuation?

We normally speak of social assessment, where assessment is the full study including human activities, their interaction, the externalities and their cause-effect chains (as in ‘Life cycle sustainability assessment’), while valuation is only the last step in the impact assessment where the relative severity of different impacts are valued by individuals in order to make comparisons and trade-offs.

We normally speak of social in the sense of ‘aggregated at the level of society’, which is the common usage in economics since Marx (1885), but acknowledge that it can also be used in the more narrow sociological sense of ‘pertaining to the interactions between people’; see also reply to question 4. Maybe it would be best to talk only of social in the societal sense and call the rest inter-personal?

 2. What is the scope of social valuation in current methodologies?

 The scope for our assessments is the full product life cycle, i.e. the system of interlinked activities that change as a consequence of producing and consuming a product. We may additionally assess the impacts of the supply chain (the system of interlinked activities that contribute one or more specified and intrinsically linked physical properties to a product), or the value chain (the system of interlinked activities that contribute added value to a product). The three types of systems are described in our article at http://lca-net.com/p/2919.

3. What is the status of quantifying social impacts currently? We want to measure social impact on a product or material level, how would you do this? What is the best way to link social impact to (components of) products or materials?

First, social impacts are quantified per product at the organizational level and these are then aggregated over the analysed product system, using the standard life cycle assessment methodology.

4. Is there an overlap between economic, environmental and social valuation and how do you deal with that?

The social assessment (=Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment) includes the internalised costs and benefits by the use of Life Cycle Costing, as well as the social (inter-personal) externalities, the economic externalities, and the biophysical externalities by the use of Life Cycle Assessment. At the level of pressure indicators, it is possible to distinguish between the social (inter-personal), economic and biophysical pressures (see http://lca-net.com/p/3289), but at the level of midpoint impacts it only possible to distinguish socio-economic and biophysical indicators, and in the end all impacts contribute to a single indicator of social (sustainable) wellbeing.

The same human activity or the same pressure indicator (such as toxic substance emissions) or the same midpoint impact indicator (such as unemployment) can contribute to more than one impact pathway, where some impact pathways may be classified as economic, some as social (inter-personal) and some as biophysical. However, this classification is irrelevant for the actual assessment, which will proceed in the same way, disregarding the classification. Each impact is assessed individually and then aggregated at the societal level, taking into account synergies and dysergies as well as the (dis-)utility to the affected population.

5. Could you give an example of social value that you have measured?

We assess indicators quantitatively at different levels of detail. The most generic level (for simple screenings) is what we call the ‘Social footprint’, which is composed of three elements: the income redistribution impact, the productivity impact of missing governance, and the potential credits for positive action. This can then be broken down into quantified contributions from more specific impacts, such as the impacts from insufficient education, insufficient health care, insufficient clean water, or undernutrition, as described in http://lca-net.com/p/2858.

We have two crowdfunded projects that contribute to further detailing and improving these impact pathways, their indicators and their characterisation factors; one specifically addressing social (inter-personal) impacts (https://lca-net.com/clubs/social-lca/) and one addressing each of the SDG indicators (https://lca-net.com/clubs/sdg/). The latter includes all impacts that contribute to sustainable development. Both crowdfunded projects are based on the same top-down approach to valuation.

6. How do you assess the value of ambiguous social impacts, e.g. child labour can normatively be seen as a negative social impact, but it also adds to income and employment.

An activity (or a pressure such as child labour) can have several impacts. When one is detrimental and the other is beneficial, they may counteract each other. In practice, each impact is modelled separately and from that the net result can be calculated.

7. How to deal with feedback loops?

Generally, we deal with loops as a standard part of the models. Our models are system of linear equations, and when solving these, either by iteration or matrix inversion, the effects of loops are implicitly a part of the solution.

8. We want to make choices based on the right metrics, not only the measurable ones. How can we make this happen? How do you deal with this?

Our approach is top-down, starting from an assessment of the current annual level of impacts on human wellbeing (people), species loss (planet), and the productivity gap (prosperity). The causes of these impacts are then traced backwards to human activities. To avoid that something is left out due to missing knowledge or missing metrics, we always identify one impact pathway as ‘default’ to take care of the residual impact that is not explained by any of the other impact pathways.

 9. What social impact data should/could be collected?

The analysed system will normally be divided in a foreground system for which activity-specific data are collected, and a background system where data come from average statistics for an industry and/or a geographical area. The minimum data that are required per activity or industry are work hours and value added.

10. How do you collect social impact data?

Companies usually supply data for the foreground systems, sometimes these may be verified by an external accountant. Background data are collected from statistical data sources. In the best case, data are available from several independent sources, allowing for triangulation.

11. What is the reliability of social impact data?

Reliability of social impact data is very variable. We use uncertainty estimates that include an assessment of reliability.

12. How to deal with a lack of benchmark data? And what data collection questions are relevant without benchmark data?

The global averages can always be used as benchmark. National and industry averages are also often available. For specific companies, the data for the previous years can be used as benchmark, giving a time series of impact, e.g. per unit of revenue. Using competitor’s performance is more difficult, since these data will seldom be publicly available. An option is when companies cooperate in industry associations.

13. For environmental impact absolute quantitative thresholds have been defined, i.e. the planetary boundaries. Can product social impact be linked to absolute thresholds and would that be meaningful? And can these thresholds be expressed in a monetary value?

In general, the socially relevant threshold is where marginal abatement costs are equal to marginal damage costs. Both these metrics are expressed in monetary units. In our top-down approach, monetary valuation is applied to the endpoints (human wellbeing measure in quality-adjusted person-life-years, species loss measured in numbers, and the productivity gap measured in productivity-adjusted person-life-years). All other contributing indicators – and therefore also thresholds – can then implicitly be expressed in monetary values.

14. Would it be possible to attribute organisational social impact to separate products?
15. Can organizational social impact indicators be translated in product social impact data?

Organisational impacts are attributed to individual products by the standard allocation procedures (for combined production by modelling the changes when producing more of one product and no more of the others; for joint production by modelling how the dependent co-products affect the markets they supply).

Final question: What is the best way to quantify qualitative indicators? E.g. could we use 12 yes/no indicators, of which 8 are scored with a “yes” which accounts to 8/12 = 66.7%?

By nature, qualitative indicators are used when possibility for quantification is insufficient. Quantifying these indicators therefore would be violating the nature and purpose of these data. The purpose of qualitative data is to identify missing perspectives and indicators, and to provide richer local context and a deeper understanding of the motivations, culture, values, power relations and change potentials of the affected societal groups.

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Press release on certified palm oil https://lca-net.com/blog/press-release-on-certified-palm-oil/ Tue, 20 Aug 2019 10:27:24 +0000 http://lca-net.com/?p=3393 Today we have sent out a brief press release on the findings from the Palm Oil Club project which has resulted in a detailed life cycle assessment (LCA) study of palm oil production. The study compares the environmental impact of RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) certified sustainable palm oil with non-certified palm oil in...

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Today we have sent out a brief press release on the findings from the Palm Oil Club project which has resulted in a detailed life cycle assessment (LCA) study of palm oil production.

The study compares the environmental impact of RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) certified sustainable palm oil with non-certified palm oil in Indonesia and Malaysia.

See the press release here: Certification of palm oil

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Global inventory modelling of wastewater discharges https://lca-net.com/blog/global-inventory-modelling-of-wastewater-discharges/ Wed, 24 Jul 2019 10:46:23 +0000 http://lca-net.com/?p=3372 In May this year we proudly presented the third version of our wastewater inventory model, WW LCI, at SETAC Europe’s 29th Annual Meeting in Helsinki, Finland (see the presentation). This constitutes the 5th consecutive platform presentation about WW LCI in a SETAC conference, which is a good sign of the scientific interest that our model...

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In May this year we proudly presented the third version of our wastewater inventory model, WW LCI, at SETAC Europe’s 29th Annual Meeting in Helsinki, Finland (see the presentation). This constitutes the 5th consecutive platform presentation about WW LCI in a SETAC conference, which is a good sign of the scientific interest that our model has received so far from the LCA community. We take this milestone as an opportunity to look back at the story behind our model.

The development of WW LCI started in 2015 as one of our crowdfunded projects, together with the three companies Henkel, Procter & Gamble and Unilever. Our goal was to develop a model and Excel tool to calculate life cycle inventories (LCIs) of chemicals discharged in wastewater. The choice of partners for this project (consumer goods companies) was not a coincidence. Indeed, after use, many of their products, such as shampoos, washing detergents, etc., end up discharged in wastewater around the globe, which makes wastewater LCI modelling a necessity for these companies when carrying out cradle-to-grave LCA studies. Yet, the only commonly available LCI model covering this aspect to date was the one by my good friend Gabor Doka, developed for version 2 of the ecoinvent database. With our project, we aimed at overcoming several limitations of this model. First, we wanted our tool to describe wastewater as a mixture of individual chemical substances rather than a set of generic descriptors such as chemical oxygen demand (COD). Second, we wanted to cover several sludge disposal routes, namely landfarming, landfilling and incineration. Last but not least, we aimed to include the environmental burdens of untreated discharges, which are unfortunately still very common in developing countries. Before the end of 2015, the first version of WW LCI was ready, as well as an article that would ultimately be published the next year in the International Journal of LCA.

Shortly after the development of our model, we got in touch with Prof. Morten Birkved, from the Technical University of Denmark (currently at the University of Southern Denmark), who was involved in the development of SewageLCI, an inventory model to calculate emissions of chemicals through WWTPs. We decided to join forces and integrate the two models, eventually giving rise to the second version of WW LCI, thanks to the hard work of Pradip Kalbar, current Assistant Professor at the Centre for Urban Science & Engineering (CUSE) at IIT Bombay. Pradip’s work led to key improvements in WW LCI, such as the inclusion of wastewater treatment by means of septic tanks, tertiary treatment of wastewater with sand filtration, treatment of wastewater in WWTPs with primary treatment only, treatment of sludge by composting, as well as the integration in the tool of a database containing wastewater and sludge statistics for 56 countries. Also, Pradip was responsible for our second peer-reviewed publication, this time in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

After some quiet time, in 2018 I decided to get to grips with several limitations of the model, such as the fact that it did not support discharges of metals in wastewater, but more importantly, I realized that by describing wastewater as a mixture of individual chemicals, as in e.g. a list of ingredients in a shampoo formulation, I was closing the door to many LCA practitioners who typically can only describe the pollution content in wastewater with the very generic descriptors I had rejected in the first place, namely COD, among others. Thus, I adapted the model to support metals as well as the characterization of wastewater based on the four parameters COD, N-total, P-total and suspended solids. On top of this, many additional features were implemented, mainly aimed at an improved regionalization, that is, to try and make LCIs more country-specific. Some of the improvements made included: emissions of methane from open-stagnant sewers, climate-dependent calculation of heat balance in the WWTPs, capacity-dependent calculation of electricity consumption in the WWTPs, the inclusion of uncontrolled landfilling of sludge, the specification of effluent discharges to sea water or inland water, and last but not least, expanding the geographical coverage of the statistics database from 56 to (currently) 86 countries, representing 90% of the world’s population (figure 1). The result of this effort, in short, is our third and latest version of WW LCI, presented in May at the SETAC conference.

Figure 1. Geographical coverage of the country database in WW LCI.

As an example of the current tool capabilities, the figure below (taken from the SETAC presentation) shows the carbon footprint of discharging 1 m3 of a typical urban wastewater in 81 countries. As it can be seen, there is wide variability between countries (up to a factor 6), with highest emissions in those countries where methane from open and stagnant sewers is expected to occur. On the other hand, emissions are substantially lower in countries where wastewater is properly collected and treated in centralized WWTPs. Obviously, the carbon footprint is not the only relevant metric, and WW LCI can support others just as well, including eco-toxicity.

Figure 1. Country-specific carbon footprint of discharging 1 m3 wastewater with a composition of 500 ppm COD, 30 ppm N, 6 ppm P and 250 ppm SS. Global warming potential for 100 years. Impact assessment calculations in SimaPro 8.5. Biogenic CO2 emissions considered to have global warming potential of zero.

Needless to say, WW LCI is not perfect. We can mention as main model limitations the fact that it does not address uncertainty, its data-demanding nature when used to model specific chemicals, the not-so-easy operation of the excel tool and the export of LCIs being currently limited to the software SimaPro. In spite of this, to our knowledge this is the most complete, flexible and regionalized inventory tool to model urban wastewater discharges in LCA studies and we expect it will eventually become the preferred approach for professional LCA practitioners. We are just a few SETAC presentations away from it.

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Counter-intuitive LCA results https://lca-net.com/blog/counter-intuitive-lca-results/ Thu, 27 Jun 2019 15:49:57 +0000 http://lca-net.com/?p=3342 Bio-based plastics with larger effect on global warming than their fossil derived counterparts? Certified forest products that unintendedly are more harmful to biodiversity than the corresponding products from plantation forestry? No environmental effect of demanding recycled paper? All these are examples of LCA results that are not immediately intuitive. Does that mean that they are...

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Bio-based plastics with larger effect on global warming than their fossil derived counterparts? Certified forest products that unintendedly are more harmful to biodiversity than the corresponding products from plantation forestry? No environmental effect of demanding recycled paper? All these are examples of LCA results that are not immediately intuitive. Does that mean that they are wrong? Not necessarily.

We are often met by a demand that our results should be immediately understandable and make intuitive sense. And there is no doubt that it is easier to communicate results when they are intuitive. Then they are immediately accepted, although often with a condescending “Ah, that’s typical, science just confirms what we knew already”. But it is when our results are not intuitive, as in the above examples, that there is a chance to learn something new. And this is where real change begins.

Counter-intuitive results are not wrong, they are just harder to communicate. Our common sense – just another word for prejudice – is challenged. Intuition is simply not capable of capturing the results of complex systems – at least not without a deeper explanation. But when that explanation is provided, the counter-intuitive results become intuitively right. Let me demonstrate how that works for the above examples:

Bio-based plastics with larger global warming impact than their fossil derived counterparts? Intuitively, one may think of bio-based plastics as being CO2-neutral due to the uptake of carbon from the air during biomass growth. However, that bio-based plastics have a larger effect on global warming than their fossil derived counterparts moves from being counter-intuitive to be intuitive when we understand that agriculture is not CO2 neutral (due to the need for fuel and fuel-based inputs, such as fertilisers) and even more importantly that up to half of the total greenhouse gas emission from growing biomass can come from the indirect land-use effects (iLUC), see e.g. the data for our life cycle assessments of milk.

Certified forest products that are more harmful to biodiversity than the corresponding products from plantation forestry? Intuitively, we would expect the certification to lead to lower impacts on biodiversity, since that should be one of the main reasons for the certification. And the biodiversity in the specific certified forest may indeed be higher than in non-certified forests. However, that the certification may unintendedly lead to an overall reduction in biodiversity compared to plantation forests moves from being counter-intuitive to be intuitive when we understand that the overall impact on biodiversity needs to be measured per unit of wood produced. Plantation forests have a high impact on biodiversity per area, but a low area per cubic metre of wood. This means that more area can be left untouched, with no biodiversity impact. If you have a lower output per area than plantation forests, you will need more area to produce the same – and thus impact the biodiversity on a larger area. The challenge is then to have a biodiversity impact that is so low per area that it also becomes lower per cubic metre of wood. This is what we call “biodiversity-managed forests”. However, in practice, it is very difficult to have low impact on biodiversity when you harvest even rather small amounts the wood that would otherwise be “food” for a large share of this biodiversity (“deadwood”). Therefore, most certified forests have higher biodiversity impacts per unit of produced wood than a plantation forest, i.e. they lie above the iso-biodiversity line in the figure below, taken from our criteria for good biodiversity indicators for forest management.

No environmental effect of demanding recycled paper? When we know that the production of recycled paper has lower impacts than virgin paper, we intuitively think that it must be beneficial for the environment to buy recycled paper. And companies that use recycled paper want to be credited for this and brag about it on their product labels. However, that there is in practice no beneficial effect moves from being counter-intuitive to be intuitive when we understand that the amount of recycled paper is not driven by demand but by supply. The market for recycled paper is constrained by the availability of waste paper. So, an increase in recycling can only come about by throwing more paper in the recycling bins, not by demanding more recycled paper. This is so for all materials where there is a well-functioning collection system. For other materials, such as plastics, there may still be situations where the market is driven by demand. And the market situation can change over time, which has caused a lot of confusion about how to apportion the burdens and credits for recycling as described in one of our previous blog-posts.

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Improving dairy products for a carbon-net-zero future https://lca-net.com/blog/improving-dairy-products-for-a-carbon-net-zero-future/ Wed, 13 Mar 2019 12:34:28 +0000 http://lca-net.com/?p=3279 Yesterday marked the release of a new strategy from Arla Foods launching their targets to accelerate the transition to sustainable dairy production. The new strategy has an increased focus on the farms and we are pleased to see how our climate tool has now been applied to 5000 individual farms. The tool calculates climate footprints...

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Yesterday marked the release of a new strategy from Arla Foods launching their targets to accelerate the transition to sustainable dairy production.

The new strategy has an increased focus on the farms and we are pleased to see how our climate tool has now been applied to 5000 individual farms. The tool calculates climate footprints for the milk from each farm and thus demonstrates to the farmer where the CO2 emissions originate.

The numbers are a motivation in themselves, and often climate ’savings’ may also entail cost savings according to Jan Toft Nørgaard, a milk producer himself and chairman of Arla Foods.

In the project for Arla we have calculated climate footprint since 1990 and the Arla farmers have reduced their emissions per kilogram of milk by 24 %. The current average for the Arla farmers in the study is an emission intensity of 1.15 kg COper kilogram of milk, which is approx. half of the global average, which is 2.5 kg CO2 (according to FAO).

Links to more information:

Arla press release (in Danish): https://www.arla.dk/om-arla/nyheder/2019/pressrelease/fremtidens-mejeriprodukter-skal-vaere-klima-neutrale-2845584/

Our project with ARLA is described in more detail here: https://lca-net.com/projects/show/carbon-footprint-milk/

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Is there a future for plastics? https://lca-net.com/blog/is-there-a-future-for-plastics/ Thu, 30 Aug 2018 07:19:39 +0000 http://lca-net.com/?p=3120 Plastic is a ubiquitous material with many benefits such as low price and weight and an extreme functional versatility. Plastics are pervasively used in modern society. However, the uses of petro-based plastics present us with some serious problems. First of all, we are talking about huge amounts of plastics. The approximate global production is around...

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Plastic is a ubiquitous material with many benefits such as low price and weight and an extreme functional versatility. Plastics are pervasively used in modern society.

However, the uses of petro-based plastics present us with some serious problems. First of all, we are talking about huge amounts of plastics. The approximate global production is around 480 mio tonnes of plastics produced every year (2011 data[1]) and is expected to double within the next 20 years. Currently the production of plastics accounts for around 3% of global GHG emissions[1].

Research from the past decade has demonstrated plastic contamination from micro-plastics being washed out as products are produced and used[2]. Microplastics are now routinely found in marine food chains[3], and the situation in terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems might be the same, as recent research demonstrates[4]. Furthermore most of us have seen troubling pictures of ‘macroplastics’ contaminating oceans, landscapes or cities around the world. Plastics in the environment cause serious ecological problems, but also represent a substantial economic challenge, as materials are wasted and fisheries and tourism are negatively affected.

In January 2018 a strategy to turn the ‘plastics economy’ into a circular economy was put forward by the European Commission as one of the solutions to the environmental problems of the production and use of plastics[5]. In a circular economy, focus is on keeping the values in the economy for as long as possible by keeping them in the ‘loop’ by reuse and recycle initiatives, as well as to minimise the materials (waste) that goes out of the loop[6].

For plastics, special attention is on reducing the waste component, as around 95% of plastics are only used once. Improving designs and options for consumer sorting and recycling can be an important part of the solution. Similarly there is a potential to improve the economy of post-use plastics as the market lacks unified standards and infrastructure for reprocessing[7]. A final approach that is often mentioned is to innovate various non-petro plastic systems, leading to products that are bio-degradable.

While the circular economy thinking intuitively makes sense to consumers and decisions makers, there are quite a few pitfalls seen from the life cycle assessment (LCA) perspective. When real life causalities are not appropriately investigated and considered, I am left with such questions as: Is recycling always a good idea? How do we compare single use vs. multiple use solutions? Are the alternatives to plastic really better for the environment?

Unfortunately, these questions are often not addressed. In the supermarkets, I begin to see bio products being labelled with blatantly incorrect claims, such as being 100% CO2 neutral. Let us remind ourselves that the old adage ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’ is true here as well – producing and using bio plastics has environmental implications just as the petro plastics have.

Luckily, we have the tools to arrive at a more balanced view of the pros and cons by applying LCA that provide answers to the above question (and more). Some of my rules of thumbs are:

  • Always consider the trade offs (What is being replaced? Pick the solution that is actually best for the environment, avoiding suboptimisation)
  • For recycling, consider what is replaced (i.e., can reuse replace equal materials or products – avoiding down-cycling?).
  • Biomaterials or products are not inherently free of GHG implications, land use effects, or biodiversity concerns (look at the full picture).
  • Be critical – find the relation between causes and effects (e.g., marine litter is not caused by plastic production, but a missing waste management)
  • Realize that sometimes more investigations are needed to reveal the true consequences of product choices.

As sustainability professionals, we need to support the decision makers and consumers to ask for truly sustainable designs and material choices. Sometimes this implies saying something that goes a bit against the grain.

It is important to distinguish between micro-plastic and “macro-plastic”. Micro-plastics, e.g., micro-beads used as scrubbers and micro-fibres from washing of synthetic textiles, pass unaltered through most waste treatment systems, and end up in the environment. Micro-beads have no options for recycling, and biodegradable alternatives are available. Thus, there are obvious reasons for banning such products, as has already been done for their use in cosmetics and personal care products in a number of countries.

For synthetic textiles and macro-plastics, the picture is quite different. When considering the alternatives, petro-plastic based products often turn out to be better for the environment, as long as it is collected and properly treated after use, so that it does not end up to decompose in nature. Capturing micro-fibres directly from the washing process therefore appears a necessity. When suggesting designs for recycling we need to make sure that fractions are clean or can be easily separated, so that downcycling is avoided as far as possible. In some situations switching to selling ‘a service’ though rental, instead of selling ‘a product’ can be a game changer, as rental comes with built-in repeated use of the product. Take-back systems also need to be investigated further, and those that actually work for the environment should be chosen over those that miss the point.

I believe there is a sustainable future for plastics, when we seriously consider the facts that we have at hand.

References

[1] Exiobase.eu

[2] Law K L 2017. Plastics in the Marine Environment. Annu. Rev. Mar. Sci. 9:205–29. https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev-marine-010816-060409

[3] Cole M, Lindeque P, Halsband C, Galloway T S 2011. Microplastics as contaminants in the marine environment: A review. Marine Pollution Bulletin 62(12): 588-2597 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025326X11005133

[4] Rochman C M 2018. Microplastics research—from sink to source. Science April:28-29. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6384/28.full

[5] Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Concil the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy.

COM/2018/028 final https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?qid=1516265440535&uri=COM:2018:28:FIN

[6] Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2016. The new plastics economy –rethinking the future of plastics https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/the-new-plastics-economy-rethinking-the-future-of-plastics

[7] Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2016. The new plastics economy –rethinking the future of plastics https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/the-new-plastics-economy-rethinking-the-future-of-plastics

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Kick-off for the linking of SDGs to LCA https://lca-net.com/blog/kick-off-for-the-linking-of-sdgs-to-lca/ Tue, 31 Jul 2018 07:18:05 +0000 http://lca-net.com/?p=3109 My blog-post last October announced our SDG club – a crowd-funded project to place each of the 169 targets of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into a comprehensive, quantified and operational impact pathway framework, as we know it from Life Cycle Impact Assessment. Now, with co-financing from the UN Environment Life Cycle Initiative,...

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My blog-post last October announced our SDG club – a crowd-funded project to place each of the 169 targets of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into a comprehensive, quantified and operational impact pathway framework, as we know it from Life Cycle Impact Assessment.

Now, with co-financing from the UN Environment Life Cycle Initiative, we have added an elaborate stakeholder consultation to run parallel with the development work, and expanded the project by teaming up with PRé Consultants to cover also the more qualitative approach known from their Roundtable for Product Social Metrics.
To mark the start of this collaboration, we published yesterday a joint, free, 13-page report entitled “Making the SDGs relevant to business”, summarising the existing knowledge on the linking of SDGs to business needs and outlining the role of LCA in meeting the needs and filling the gaps.

We are now looking for businesses that are interested in taking part in the stakeholder consultations and industry case studies. Contact bo.weidema@lca-net.com if you want to take part or know more.

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PEF weighed and found wanting https://lca-net.com/blog/pef-weighed-and-found-wanting/ Tue, 05 Jun 2018 07:37:15 +0000 http://lca-net.com/?p=3045 Our guest-blogger today is Maartje Sevenster, Sevenster Environmental, who has followed and analysed the process leading to the recently published weighting method for the EU Product Environmental Footprint (PEF). Here she shares her serious reservations on the process and the results. A weighting set for the EU Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) was published last month....

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Our guest-blogger today is Maartje Sevenster, Sevenster Environmental, who has followed and analysed the process leading to the recently published weighting method for the EU Product Environmental Footprint (PEF). Here she shares her serious reservations on the process and the results.

A weighting set for the EU Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) was published last month. The weighting factors have been developed by the Joint Research Centre via an elaborate approach that has attempted to separate value-based weighting into objective factors. Nevertheless, the result is a poor, semi-qualitative approximation that mixes characterization, distance-to-target weighting, panel weighting, and uncertainty. All in all, the approach comes across as a black box of flawed mathematical operations.

A PEF consists of a characterization result for each of 16 impact categories, a corresponding set of weighted normalised results, and one single-score result. The use of this weighting method and the resulting single-score will be a requirement in all PEF studies and is meant to facilitate interpretation.

The final weighting set is an average of three independently derived sets, with the average multiplied by a robustness factor. Two of three independent sets are derived via traditional panel weighting and the third is based on a hybrid ‘evidence-based’ approach.

The term evidence-based has a feel of objectivity about it, but in its first part the approach applies weighting to issues that could better be investigated by natural science, and in the second part – that necessarily must be based on subjective preferences – the chosen approach violates basic requirements for good valuation practice.

In the first part of the JRC approach, an expert panel was asked to score the below seven characteristics of impacts on a scale from 1 to 100:

  • Spread of impact
  • Time span of generated impact
  • Reversibility of impact
  • Level of impact compared to planetary boundary
  • Severity of effect on human health
  • Severity of effect on ecosystem quality
  • Severity of effect on resources availability

It is immediately obvious that many of these factors, such as time span, are already covered by the commonly used LCA natural science based characterization models, even if they are not always made explicit in the end results. In fact, Annex 13 of the JRC weighting report includes a similar criticism by Mark Goedkoop: “using a panel to link mid to endpoint is really weird. This means we replace science by the verdict of panellist. I am quite aware about some of the uncertainties in the mid to end point factors, but I always thought we prefer science over the laymen’s view. Uncertain science is always better than no science at all.” Another example: the use of GWP100 for characterizing global climate change impacts implies a natural science based assessment of the timing of the impacts for comparison of greenhouse gas emissions. Is it then valid to subsequently allow an expert panel to assign a zero weight to time span as a weighting factor, which was theoretically possible for the experts in this approach?

Only two of the seven factors are not part of LCA characterization models, namely reversibility and level compared to planetary boundary. Reversibility is also the only factor that is intrinsically categorical and therefore an excellent illustration of the artificiality of the approach. Is it valid to say that an irreversible impact is (only) a 100 times worse than an impact that can be reversed by natural processes within one year? It would certainly be useful to dicuss these factors prior to determining a multi-criteria type panel weighting per impact category.

Factors such as reversibility and time span may well play a role in expert judgements of the severity of a certain impact as compared to others. However, the JRC approach first introduces a categorical scaling for each of those factors turning them into artificial ordinal variables. For instance, for time span the following categories are used:

  • Momentary [less than 1 month] = score of 1
  • Very short term [more than 1 month and less than 1 year] = score of 20
  • Short term [1-3 years] = score of 40
  • Medium term [4-30 years] = score of 60
  • Long term [31 – 100 years] = score of 80
  • Very long term [more than 100 years] = score of 100

Even though we know precisely that some impacts are instantaneous and others may be spread out over hundreds of thousands of years, such as those of radioactive radiation, the difference is here reduced to an arbitrary factor of 100. The bottom line is that most of the seven factors can be evaluated by natural science, albeit with considerable uncertainty, and do not need expert weighting. The scaling wipes out all scientific evidence and along with it any understanding of what a resulting indicator might really mean.

The second part of the JRC expert weighting procedure is a more traditional expert panel judgement of the relative importance of the seven factors. This leads us to another troubling aspect, which is that the seven factors are not completely independent as is required for proper evaluation of (compensatory) weights. Especially the “level compared to planetary boundary” overlaps with all other factors to at least some extent. Moreover, averaging categorical variables is mathematically meaningless, even when the categories appear to be “numerical”.

Finally, this weighting set from the expert panel is averaged with two other weighting sets derived via a different approach. This seriously undermines the transparency of the weighting, which should at all times be straightforward to interpret, not just a set of numbers to arrive at a single score. This is further aggravated by the use of a robustness factor to assess what is in essence uncertainty. Again, this factor involves three arbitrarily scaled ordinal variables that are averaged. The report shows some inconsistencies regarding the final choice for this robustness factor, which is apparently not considered very robust by JRC, since toxicity impacts have been excluded from the benchmark calculations in spite of already having a very low weighting due to their low estimated robustness. The semi-numerical approach gives a false sense of objectivity to this “uncertainty assessment”.

To summarize, the final weighting set is the result of so many mathematically questionable averaging, scaling, and multiplication steps that it is hard to take serious. To allow for proper interpretation of results, weighting sets should be based on clear and transparent principles. It is preferable to use a single-step conversion with a fairly limited but unambiguous perspective, such as weighting based on damage costs.

Previous blog-posts on PEF:

The clock is ticking for PEF
Harnessing the End‑of‑Life Formula

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Is your pet a climate problem? https://lca-net.com/blog/is-your-pet-a-climate-problem/ Wed, 31 Jan 2018 16:24:59 +0000 https://lca-net.com/?p=2969 The dog is said to be man’s best friend, but is it a climate enemy? Dogs and cats are as fond of meat as are their owners. And therefore their CO2 emissions make up a substantial part of their owners emission totals. In fact, our calculation shows that a 10 kilo dog like the ones...

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The dog is said to be man’s best friend, but is it a climate enemy?

Dogs and cats are as fond of meat as are their owners. And therefore their CO2 emissions make up a substantial part of their owners emission totals. In fact, our calculation shows that a 10 kilo dog like the ones below on average emits up to 1.1 tonnes of CO2 annually, mainly through their meat consumption.

Last week I was called in as an expert for a radio programme: P1 – ‘Your dog, the climate enemy’. This segment is part of a series, ‘The climate testament’, that addresses climate issues and what each of us can do to alleviate some of the problems we face today.

The largest and most obvious problem with cats and dog lies with their meat consumption. As meat is produced, we see both land use effects and various greenhouse gas emissions, since the conversion from plant to animal protein is very inefficient, esp. for the bigger animals like pigs and cows.

For the radio programme, I had calculated emissions for three different dog sizes and I compared these to driving a car, where the emissions from small dog is equivalent to driving up to 1000 km in a average Danish car, while the big dog equals up to 5200 km driven, provided the dogs eat meat. I based these rough and average calculations on the current dietary recommendations for each of the weight classes given by professor Charlotte Bjørnvad. Bjørnvad is a professor in Internal Medicine at Department of Veterinary Clinical and Animal Sciences, University of Copenhagen.

Luckily for the environmentally conscious pet owner, Bjørnvad explained that a conversion to a more climate neutral diet is possible.

Dogs have had a long co-evolution with humans, eating the leftovers from our table. So in spite of their wolf ancestry, they can now thrive on a vegetarian diet. This is also a consequence of breeding, with all the genetic changes that this entails. Charlotte Bjørnvad explained how we could give them a protein base from e.g. beans combined with eggs, but let their main energy come from carbohydrates. In fact, a dog’s digestive system can handle carbohydrates and fibres from vegetables, provided they are heat-treated, just as is the case for humans.

So there is now enough knowledge to suggest it is safe to switch to a vegetarian diet for our canine friends. For cats, it remains a bit more tricky – a suggestion in the programme was to include insects as a source of animal protein for the cats, since they need a wider range of animal proteins in their diet, compared to both humans and dogs.

So starting from a rather polemic initial question; we arrived safely at the end of the radio programme at a solution that can be directly implemented in your dogs food bowl – next step is to push the pet food market in the right direction.

Link:

For those of you that understand Danish the podcast and Danish article is here.

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