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The consequences of carbon conundrums

By Jim Ormond

How do we measure the carbon impact of a product, service or behaviour? Typically, we focus on the processes and the material flows directly affected by a change in production, consumption and disposal. For instance, we might argue that if the train from London to Birmingham were faster, more people would take it, reducing the number of cars on our roads (and the associated emissions) and decreasing our national carbon footprint. We call this approach to life cycle assessment (LCA) ‘attributional’.

But this attributional LCA method often fails to take account of the wider consequencesof an action. What if, when all the train passengers get to Birmingham, they turn on their lights, televisions, computers, IPads and heating earlier than they would have? What does this do to the national carbon balance?

To understand these impacts, we need a ‘consequential’ approach, which considers all the processes and material flows directly and indirectly affected by a change, both now and in the future. This includes the wider social, economic and market consequences, such as changes in supply and demand.

So what does this mean in practice?

A simple example would be the impact on GHG emissions of a policy to shift from fossil fuels to corn-based ethanol fuel. An attributional LCA may find that subsidising the price of corn-based ethanol encourages consumers to move away from more carbon-intensive fossil fuels. Yet, by expanding the boundaries, a consequential approach highlights the fact that increased demand for corn prompts a rise in market prices. This triggers changes in land-use, with the impact of removing carbon stores (e.g. by deforestation - for land to grow the corn) potentially outweighing the direct GHG savings. Indeed, prompted by this policy, a decrease in demand for fossil fuels in one market may influence global oil prices and encourage increased consumption elsewhere in the world.

On an individual level, another example would be the impact of improving the energy efficiency of your household heating. From an attributional perspective, improved efficiency means less GHG emitted per unit of power. Yet, if we expand the boundaries and consider the wider impact, what will people do with the money saved by more efficient heating? Will they simply heat their houses for longer? Will they spend this money on other energy-consuming devices? Either way, they will erode any carbon (and cost) savings.

Whilst an attributional LCA is valuable for screening beneficial technologies and policies, in parallel we must also engage with more holistic notions of life cycle consequential thinking to ensure (albeit well-intentioned) policy mandates and decisions avoid counterproductive outcomes. Just as carbon is a global cycle, we need to recognise that it also operates alongside and within wider economic/market, social and environment cycles.  

There is a need for a shift in thinking (or mindset) which goes beyond the immediate consequences of a business or policy decision (at the site of operation or supply chain) to consider the wider impact. And not just in terms of carbon, but environmentally, economically and socially. We must move beyond silo-thinking to consider the wider system, its impact on us and our impact on it.

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