blind spots in the environmental and climate approach/sustainability
When listening to an interview, I regularly think: dive deeper, keep asking….! The same in the newspaper. Like recently: the newspaper offered space to a philosopher, who was allowed to go wild with his climate and environmental solutions. The editors didn’t realize that they were being used to promote all kinds of technology solutions. From a philosopher… There was double standards in the article, and a lot was left out of consideration.
There are a number of blind spots (or taboos) in the environmental and climate discussions , which are always left out of the picture, so that misunderstandings continue to circulate. That is why I composed a small checklist for journalists and editors, with questions, to use during interviews and articles, before concluding the interview or article. Separately a document with some explanation , background and references to these topics is available.
1 money is not a measure of sustainability
Money is an artificial unit, with no relation to the environment and climate. It is precisely (the growth of) money that gets us into trouble. Even if it would be a measure, then still: if you could earn money from it, we would have solved all problems long ago, right?
Q: Then ask: If people can earn a profit from the investment, what are they going to do with that money…?
Energy can never be seen separately from material: without material investments no energy and without energy no materials . They are two of the same, condemned to each other.
Q: What about the impact of the materials invested in the solution? (See also 3)
3 impact is not about 1 product. But about all products together!
Solutions are often technically interesting, and also relevant and effective at product level.
But (the benefits of) 1 new product says nothing about the environment and climate effect: it is about the total impact of the entire production, application and use. (within limited global CO2 budget)
Q: (with everything) Is it still a good solution (with regard to the environment and climate) if all 8,000,000,000 people worldwide purchase your product or service…?
4 Everything takes time: if we had arranged everything by tomorrow, our problems would have been solved: but the application or introduction of measures or innovations takes an awful lot of time.
Q: how much time will you need to replace or adapt all products, and is that still in time within the climate agreements? Or within the period before the CO2 budget is exhausted?
5 input output
Often the ‘yield’ is praised. But the input is omitted or concealed. For example, Dutch agriculture is seen as sustainable, mainly because it has the world’s largest output per hectare. But the total energy input is 6 times greater than the total food energy output. It’s an energy destruction machine.
Q: For example, ask about the EROI of a process orproduct: the energy return on energy investment.
6 comfort?: Watch out, a lot of new developments are ‘sold’ as providing increased comfort. In that case, be on your guard immediately, because in 99% of the cases more comfort means more energy and material use, across the entire chain. The issue is reducing energy and material use, and preventing the consequences thereof, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, not increasing comfort! So stay focused on the objective, comfort is an afterthought.
Q: So ask rather: What is an environmental improvement with the least loss of comfort….
7 sustainability ?
Everyone has a different interpretation of the word. Better would be to speak of ‘maintainable’ :
Q: whether a particular service or function is maintainable , that is can be delivered for everyone (within planetary limits) in the length of days.
8 sustainable materials?: They don’t exist. Material resources are not sustainable nor unsustainable. Materials just are. It is the use that determines whether something is sustainable, that is, whether the use or application is maintainable over time. What makes the difference is which material can provide that function or service with the least impact.
Q: can the function or service be provided permanently, for everyone (see 3), in the sense that energy and materials can remain available in a sustainable manner?
9 Recycling?: Beware of the claim that a material can be recycled: All materials can be recycled, that is not a distinguishing criterion. Recycling is of course a good thing, but whether that is easy is again determined by the application, not by the material: eg how easy the material can be separated. (see also 10). Moreover, future recycling or reuse of a product or application is a benefit in the future, not for now! It is often wrongly attributed to the present, to make things look better.
Q: Why is recycling an advantage, isn’t it possible with all materials?
10 Circular?: What’s currently being hyped as circular is actually just linear slowing down processes. Notwithstanding that this is a good thing, but for most materials the cycle is not closed: ie the stock of raw materials is not replenished, so its just depleted.
Moreover, ‘circular’ (that is recycling and reuse) concerns at most 10 or 20 % of our material use, because of: limited reuse possibilities, limited collection and increasing total material use.
Q: Circular? Do you mean that you close the cycle and therefore do not exhaust raw materials as a result?
11 new product?
Every new product or building, ‘sustainable’ or not, still contributes to increasing the problem, not solving it! It demands new materials and energy input ( even if renewable, it requires extra windturbines or else) . First of all, we must reduce existing energy consumption and CO2 emissions to 0!
Q: Does your product or proposal contribute in absolute terms to the Zero-CO2 target?
12 CO2 is effect, not cause!
CO2 emissions and climate change are a consequence, not a cause, a side effect of our consumption pattern, just like nitrogen problems, biodiversity loss, pfas, desiccation, loss of fertility of agricultural land , and even a pandemic.
Q: What is the effect for other than CO2 problems?
In summary: the question What is sustainable is actually a question of: what is maintainable over time (and in principle for the entire world population), and what is 100% renewable, and renewed… (both for energy and material).
And therefor of course also 0-fossil and 0-CO2. Everything else is nice window dressing, but isn’t going to help.
Ronald Rovers Waalre December 2021
www.ronaldrovers.com , www.ribuilt.eu
(see document: “checklist background” for more background and sources: checklist-journalists-160122-uk-background)