Quantifying Environmental Impact

Sustainability is a concept embraced by individuals and corporations with a social and environmental conscience. Although ‘sustainability’ can be interpreted in many ways and in different contexts, to me it essentially means the effective management of environmental systems to ensure we can rely on those systems for our long-term support and survival. I become quite passionate about the subject at times, and I always try to do what I can to live simply and sustainably, without denying myself what I love, or by finding new and better ways to have the experiences I want, with minimal impact on the environment.

On an organizational level, sustainability usually refers to a company’s economic bottom line, although many businesses today are recognizing that social and environmental impacts must be factored into business decisions. Many organizations are building sustainability strategies and protocols into their operational plans and designing sustainable and ethical products and services.

Creating realistic, effective models for quantifying environmental impact is difficult. Environmental systems, and human beings, are complex, and there is no formula for life, for health, or for a way to live that guarantees the ecological integrity of these environmental systems. We can only do what we do, observe and measure the impacts, try to understand how, when and where these impacts will manifest across spatial and temporal scales, adjust our behaviour accordingly, and apply management strategies to mitigate any negative impacts.

My undergraduate degree was focused on systems thinking, and so I take a more holistic view of life, where different elements making up environmental systems work synergistically, and will act a certain way depending on their relationship to other elements in the system – ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ idea.

A reductionist approach assumes individual elements will always work the same, and if you remove one element from a system, the remaining elements will continue to work in the same way. Quantifying environmental impact is a complex subject and warrants a more thorough analysis than can ever be undertaken here. I will touch on a few of the measures currently used to quantify environmental impact, apply them on a smaller, individual scale, and outline strategies we can use in our own lives, to get an idea of the impact our actions may be having on the environment.

UPDATE:  Not long after publishing this post, I was emailed an article from Australian Ethical about a collaborative study/exercise by BBC Earth, Dr Tony Juniper and UNEP-WCMC that aims to place a monetary value on the Earth’s natural resources: “If we can’t measure it, we can’t manage it.” Refer to the BBC article for further information.

Environmental economics

This method involves looking at the relationship between the economy and the environment, specifically the extraction and use of natural resources and the generation and disposal of their waste products. It is used primarily by organizations to calculate a cost-benefit analysis by assigning a dollar value to natural resources and ecosystem services. Cap and trade systems are essentially a version of environmental economics.

Externalities are the unintentional effects of economic activity on the environment, or on those people who have not produced or consumed a product or service. This usually means people in poorer countries and communities are left to clean up the mess produced by developed countries. This is an important concept to understand because it essentially means these effects should be taken into account and built into the cost of a product or service.

For example, pollution must be accounted for in the cost of petrol. But how do you quantify the cost of an oil spill that may occur in the process of delivering the crude material to a refinery to be transformed into petrol? Is it ethical, or even possible, to put a dollar cost value on wildlife and ecosystems damaged by the effects of an oil spill?

What about social impact as an externality? For example, most of us have a mobile phone and computer, but how many of us realize exactly how this product was made? Do the corporations that market these products factor in the social welfare impacts of child labour, mining of conflict minerals and human rights abuses that has occurred in the extraction of the raw materials required to manufacture mobile phones? I would imagine the cost of these products would become prohibitively expensive for the average person if these issues were factored into price.

Therefore, it’s important to seek out ethically produced goods and services, and it’s also the reason why these products and services are more expensive, but I’m happy to pay more for ethical products and services.

Ecological footprints

This method quantifies the impact human beings have on the environment by adding the amount of productive land (agricultural, pasture, forest and fishing grounds) required to produce the food, fibre and timber we consume; the air, water and land required to absorb the wastes we produce; and the space required to support the infrastructure we rely on to live. On a global level, at our current rate of consumption, we are using more land and natural resources than the Earth can regenerate naturally.

On an individual level, we can calculate our ecological footprint with one of the online calculators available. I tried two different calculators – the results of both revealed I require more than one Earth to sustain my lifestyle, which surprised me, because I live very simply. Perhaps I need to refine and streamline my consumption habits even more than I already have? Bear in mind these calculators are not one hundred percent accurate, as they are based on national data averages, and may not necessarily give a true indicator of an ecological footprint.

But they are a good starting point for us to think about how we can reduce our consumption, because we must think about how much we drive our cars, the energy we use and the food we eat. We can drive less, reduce our energy consumption and choose to eat whole, unprocessed food, because the closer the food is to its natural state, the better it is for our bodies and the environment.

Carbon offsetting

Our lifestyles have an environmental impact that produces greenhouse gas emissions. This is difficult to quantify accurately but we can compensate for the impact of these emissions by purchasing carbon offsets. Here we combine the methods of environmental economics and ecological footprints. Carbon offsetting resembles an ‘environmental economics’ measure, in that it is a form of trade that reduces the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.

Carbon offsetting utilizes an ‘ecological footprint’ approach, except that after we have calculated our footprint, we convert our carbon dioxide emissions per tonne into a dollar value. We can pay to plant a certain number of trees to absorb the equivalent amount of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere that we emit, or we can donate that dollar value to fund local and international projects to benefit local communities.

In a previous post, Offset your Carbon Emissions, I used the calculator from the Carbon Neutral Charitable Fund website to estimate the average amount of greenhouse gas emissions my lifestyle generates in an average year, which amounted to just under $4 a week. This is a very small price to pay, and at the least a symbolic gesture of giving back.

Product life cycle analysis

This method calculates total embodied energy incorporated into a product or service, from the extraction of resources and raw materials at the beginning of its life cycle, to the manufacture, assembly or installation; transport and distribution; the consumption; and to the disposal, recycling or decomposition at the end of the life cycle. The energy required to produce goods and services is incorporated into the product or service itself.

The next time you purchase a product, think about the materials that were used, the energy that was generated and the waste that has been produced to get that product into your hands. Think beyond the shop where you purchased that product, look into the past to learn how that product came into being, and look forward into the future to see how you will dispose of it once you have no more use for it. Acknowledge, learn and change.

Better yet, think like an Environmental Warrior. Reduce your use of non-essential consumables by becoming aware of what you really need, and the amount of materials and energy required to make the products you use every day. Simplify your consumable items to the bare minimum.

Purchase a few beautiful hand-made products you intend to keep forever, because they mean something to you, and are a visible manifestation of your soul, not something you have been told you must have by a corporation or advertising agency trying to make a profit, who preys on your insecurity and need to belong to sell you something you don’t need. Think of the other forms of life (human and non-human) on Earth that are impacted by the choices you make every day.

© 2016 Environmental Warrior
Photo by Pär Pärsson on Unsplash

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