Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Saul Griffith’s Carbon Footprints Part I – More on Consumer vs Producer Responsibility

“Power Consumption at work... This... brings up a very interesting point... where do you draw the lines in figuring out your own energy consumption? Does work energy go against you or the product of that work?”
Saul Griffith’s excellent presentation gives a very thorough view of carbon foot-printing, and the particular question above is quite fundamental. I would argue that personal energy consumption should be treated separately from energy use for work. The energy use related to our work should show up embodied in the product of our work.

A few examples could help illustrate why…
  1. Say I am truck driver that delivers apples ( ;-) ) to a local grocery store. It would not make sense to mix my personal energy consumption behavior with my job as a truck driver. Even if I lead a carbon neutral personal life, mixing my stellar home footprint and my work related emissions would give a distorted view of the choices I can make – ie the factors which are under my control, in my personal life.
  2. Now let’s imagine the exact opposite case. Let’s say you are a small business owner, doing most of your work from the office using emails and phones. Again, you could be driving a hummer from home to work, and leave your oven on 24 hours a day, but if you mix your personal and work energy usage, you would still seem more eco-friendly than the me.
  3. Now, to drive the point home, imagine that you are my boss, and you are responsible for deciding the kind of truck I would drive. Clearly, the distortion created by mixing personal and professional energy use and footprints would make the exercise quite meaningless.
This is not to say we shouldn’t worry about our work related energy use. All of us have some say in the energy consumption of our workplace. And we can make choices to affect it. But the energy consumption of my apple delivery business should be compared with the energy consumption of other apple delivery businesses, or delivery businesses in general. The result of our work, and the energy we consume to deliver it, would both be manifested in the product of our work – in this case, an apple. So it would also make sense to use metrics like CO2 emissions per apple delivered…

Or, for practical purposes, so as to be able to generalize (and mix apples and oranges in the same truck), one could measure, CO2 per dollar of revenue delivered…

Or rather, to be able to account for each business’s share of economic activity, carbon emissions per dollar of economic value add.

(To illustrate: Let’s assume I have an apple delivery business using apples from my brother’s farm. And say you have an apple farm and deliver the apples yourself. Ultimately, we would want to compare the total lifecycle emissions for each apple. Say, you sell apples for $2 and emit 2 grams of carbon per apple, from the farm to the final delivery. My brother emits one gram of carbon per apple and sells them to me for $1. If I emit 1 gram of carbon in delivering the apples and sell them for $2, the total embodied emissions of the apples I sell are the same as yours – 2 grams in total. But if I calculate emissions per dollar of revenue, I would get 0.5 grams of emissions for every dollar of revenue – ie 1 gram for every $2 apple – which is the wrong comparison. In effect, I am emitting 1 gram for every $1 of economic value add, since I am buying the apples for $1.)

So, the best way to compare apples and apples is to compare the total embodied emissions in each product, including each part of the full supply chain, preferably in the form of a carbon label. And each part of the supply chain would weigh its emissions against the economic value that it is adding to the product, and compare that to similar businesses - ie comparing apple delivery to apple delivery.

From a consumer responsibility perspective, it would be up to each apple buyer to decide between different kinds of apples and take responsibility for that purchase decision. If an apple delivery company decides to use solar powered trucks, then that should show up on the carbon label of the apples it delivers, and affect the carbon footprint of the buyers of those apples.

Many argue that carbon labels are impractical because the carbon footprint of each product is very hard to calculate. I don’t believe that to be the case, especially if you weigh that difficulty against the total impact of embodied emissions (also see here and here.)



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