30 July 2017

Nappies, LCAs, and the environment

From an article in a recent New Scientist:
Greenhouse gas emissions from the production of various materials reveal that recycling is always greener than using virgin resources Throwaway culture: the truth about recycling, Bob Holmes, 'New Scientist', 22 July
This is problematic for two reasons. First: I think it's a mistake to define 'greener' as 'generating a lower level of greenhouse gas emissions'. Why? Because production inevitably entails numerous other environmental impacts. Second: because 'always' is anyway too definitive.

Life Cycle Analyses (LCAs) are not a simple exercise, but one conducted by the UK's Environment Agency compared the environmental impacts of disposable nappies (diapers) against home- and commercially-laundered cloth nappies. The conclusion:
For the three nappy systems studied, there was no significant difference between any of the environmental impacts – that is, overall no system clearly had a better or worse environmental performance, although the life cycle stages that are the main source for these impacts are different for each system. Life Cycle Assessment of Disposable and Reusable Nappies in the UK (pdf), Environment Agency, 2005
This LCA considered a wide array of environmental impacts: 'resource depletion; climate change; ozone depletion; human toxicity; acidification; fresh-water aquatic toxicity; terrestrial toxicity; photochemical oxidant formation (low level smog) and nutrification of fresh water (eutrophication).' Climate change, note, is just one of these impacts. This study was published 12 years ago, and its conclusion might have changed since then - which is my second point: that even if we can say now that recycling aluminium, say, is currently 'greener' than producing from the virgin resource, it might not always be so. Weighting environmental impacts, apart from being largely subjective, can never be definitive: our scientific knowledge about these impacts changes, as do the technologies of extraction and recycling and numerous other relevant variables. Our current policymaking system, as applied most spectacularly to climate change, relies on our trying to identify the source of a problem and then basing policy instruments for decades ahead on that - ossified - knowledge of scientific relationships. As well as failing to account for our rapidly expanding scientific knowledge, it necessarily ignores potentially massive changes in social, financial or biological variables.

My suggestion is that policymakers or environmental campaigners stop focusing on how things are done and instead target environmental outcomes, measured in terms of human, animal and plant health. Environmental Policy Bonds could target quite ambitious goals at the national or even global level. Just choosing their target could force policymakers and the rest of us into clarifying what we really want to achieve. For example: do we primarily want to influence the climate, or are we more concerned about the adverse effects of the climate on human, animal and plant life? The difference is subtle, but it might be that doing the former is not the most efficient, nor even a feasible, way of mitigating the latter.

Clarification of goals is one crucial advantage of the Environmental Policy Bond concept. Another is that the bonds, being tradeable, could target ambitious, long-term goals that will probably require the lifetime of multiple democratic government administrations to achieve. A bond regime would not dictate how our goals shall be achieved, nor who shall achieve them. At any one time the bonds will be held by that coalition of interests who are - or who think they are - the people who will be most efficient at achieving the next step on way to the bonds' redemption.

In all, then, the Social Policy Bond concept, as applied to the environment, would motivate bondholders to explore and implement diverse, adaptive initiatives that will efficiently achieve our environmental goals. This is something that our current policymaking system, based as it is on the use of fossilised science and heavily influenced by vested interests, simply cannot do.

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