Last September, European Union President Ursula Von der Leyen announced that by 2030, she wants Europe carbon-neutral, to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by 55%, and to spearhead a digital revolution. In the U.S. that same month, California’s Governor Gavin Newsom announced that the state will reduce its GHGs by prohibiting sales of new gas-powered vehicles beginning in 2035.
I certainly welcome GHG reductions. But Von der Leyen and Newsom’s policies simply make way for manufacturers to continue making electric vehicles [EVs], smartphones, rooftop solar systems, televisions, air conditioners, etc.—and for privileged consumers to buy them-without consideration of these products’ cradle-to-grave environmental impacts. Because these policies do not count GHGs or toxins emitted during extraction, manufacturing or disposal, they fail to recognize that GHGs are global phenomena, emitted during production of the goods many of us consider “green.”
To reduce global emissions and extractions, we’ll need a wider view. We’ll need to question our assumptions and goals about technology and sustainability. I dare say that as we discuss this stuff, we’ll need to respect each other and admit that we’ve omitted significant things in previous assessments.
Let’s start by defining our terms.
Carbon neutral. It means having equilibrium between carbon emissions (i.e. greenhouse gasses emitted during manufacturing) and the Earth’s absorbing them in carbon sinks (such as forests). To achieve carbon neutrality (net zero emissions), all worldwide GHG emissions must be counterbalanced, eliminated or captured by carbon sequestration. In other words, when a manufacturing process generates CO2, its emissions must be offset (say by planting trees) to the extent that they neutralize the carbon emitted by manufacturing.
The key idea here is that “all worldwide GHG emissions” have to be counterbalanced or eliminated. E-vehicles have no emissions while they operate. If Europe’s or California’s GHG emissions decrease because their use of electric vehicles increases, we still can’t call those places carbon-neutral. Unless we account for the GHGs and other ecological harms that increase during manufacturing or disposing of electric vehicles (or other “energy-efficient” manufactured goods), then we can’t honestly call any place carbon neutral. Also, how many trees should we plant to offset the production of one new vehicle?
Cradle-to-grave or Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). LCA should include every stage in a manufactured product’s life: design, extraction, smelting, manufacturing of solvents and solders, transport of materials between stations, assembly, transport of the final product to its end-user, the product’s usable life, repair, and disposal or recycling. LCA can also apply to delivery of electricity or telecommunications services.
Embodied (or embedded) energy. It refers to the energy used while manufacturing a product. The energy used to mine ores, wash them, transport them to smelters, smelt, manufacture chemicals and solvents and transport them to assembly plants, assemble circuit boards, bend and cut metals and plastics for the product’s body, make packaging and ship the final product to its end-user…is embodied in the product. Looking from cradle-to-grave, most of a product’s energy is consumed before its end-user turns the product on for the first time. For example, 81% of a laptop’s total energy use is embodied. Every manufactured product (i.e. smartphones, solar panels, electric vehicles, etc.) also includes embodied greenhouse gases and toxic waste.
Waste. Usually, when we think of waste, we think of the stuff placed in garbage bins. But most waste is embodied. It occurs during extraction, smelting, assembly, transporting and manufacturing of goods. For example, manufacturing silicon (for solar panels or computers) requires several energy-intensive, greenhouse gas-emitting, toxic waste-emitting steps. “Reducing” silicon from ore begins with shipping quartz, dense wood and pure carbon to a smelter kept at 1800 °F (982 °C) for years at a time. In April, 2016, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation issued Globe Metallurgical Inc. a permit to release, annually, hundreds of thousands of tons of contaminants, including carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, hydrogen chloride, oxides of nitrogen, particulates, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid mist. Call these examples of toxic waste embodied in every computer and solar panel. Of course, end-of-usable-life waste also impacts our ecosystems. Recycling can generate waste.
Infrastructures. They are necessary to operate a society or enterprise. For examples: roads and refueling stations provide infrastructure for vehicles. Refrigerators and washing machines need electricity—which needs substations, power lines, transformers, fuel and voltage control. Accessing the Internet from any computer needs networks and data storage centers. Every product depends on well-maintained infrastructure to transport raw materials to factories and finished products to their end-users: trucks and roadways, cargo ships and shipping lanes, trains and railroads, airplanes and airports.
Energy efficiency. It actually increases consumption of energy and ores: to mass-produce an “efficient” product, manufacturers extract, refine, transport and assemble the raw materials. They make millions of items. This sets off a chain reaction that causes more energy use and more toxic and GHG emissions. When engineers learn to make vehicles (say) more efficient, manufacturers may increase new cars’ weight, horse-power, air conditioning and digital features like GPS—rather than settle for reduced energy consumption. (Imagine the infrastructure needed for GPS.)
Digital revolution. Let me return to President Von der Leyen’s call for the EU to lead digital transformation, especially on data, technology and infrastructure. She wants people in rural areas to have access to fast broadband connections. She wants to invest eight billion euros in the next generation of supercomputers, and to foster development of next-generation processors.
I wonder: How can Europeans’ digital infrastructure and Internet use increase without increasing worldwide extraction, energy use, greenhouse gases, shipping, toxic waste and worker hazards? Does “a digital revolution” mean 5G? How could we deploy 5G sustainably?
Before we consider these questions, let’s define sustainability. For the long term, I like ecological economist Herman Daly’s guidelines: Don’t take natural resources from the Earth faster than it can replenish them. Don’t waste faster than the Earth can absorb the waste.
Unfortunately, since so many activities in our daily lives now depend on fossil fuels that took billions of years to form and that emit GHGs and toxins that disrupt our climate and take eons to biodegrade, for the short term, Daly’s guidelines will not work.
So, while our current production and consumption patterns are not sustainable and we aim to reduce our overall ecological damage immediately, what practices could realistically move us toward sustainability?
Before manufacturing or purchasing any product or service, let’s ask routinely about its cradle-to-grave impacts. Let’s ask: Is this product essential? Is it a luxury? Whether or not we can pay for it, is this product or service within our ecological means? How does this item fit into our goal of reducing our overall energy use, extractions, worker hazards and waste? Could we meet basic needs with existing infrastructure or by repairing what we already own?
Asking these questions could mean acknowledging that our concept of sustainability has been incomplete.
Asking questions is an ongoing process. Without frequently reassessing our understanding of technology and acknowledging that we still have much to learn, we can easily mislead ourselves.
As Professor Bill Torbert eloquently states: “If we’re not aware that we’re part of the problem, then we can’t be part of the solution.”