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Life Arts    H1'ed 11/13/20

Defining "carbon neutrality" before enacting new policies

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Letters to Greta #6

Defining "carbon neutrality" before enacting new policies

by Katie Singer

Dear Greta,

Last September, European Union President Ursula Von der Leyen announced that by 2030, she wants Europe carbon-neutral, to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by 55%, and to spearhead a digital revolution. In the U.S. that same month, California's Governor Gavin Newsom announced that the state will reduce its GHGs by prohibiting sales of new gas-powered vehicles beginning in 2035.

I certainly welcome GHG reductions. But Von der Leyen and Newsom's policies simply make way for manufacturers to continue making electric vehicles [EVs], smartphones, rooftop solar systems, televisions, air conditioners, etc.and for privileged consumers to buy them-without consideration of these products' cradle-to-grave environmental impacts. Because these policies do not count GHGs or toxins emitted during extraction, manufacturing or disposal, they fail to recognize that GHGs are global phenomena, emitted during production of the goods many of us consider "green."

To reduce global emissions and extractions, we'll need a wider view. We'll need to question our assumptions and goals about technology and sustainability.

I dare say that as we discuss this stuff, we'll need to respect each other and admit that we've omitted significant things in previous assessments.

Let's start by defining our terms.

Carbon neutral means having equilibrium between carbon emissions (i.e. greenhouse gasses emitted during manufacturing) and the Earth's absorbing them in carbon sinks (such as forests). To achieve carbon neutrality (net zero emissions), all worldwide GHG emissions must be counterbalanced, eliminated or captured by carbon sequestration. In other words, when a manufacturing process generates CO2, its emissions must be offset (say by planting trees) to the extent that they neutralize the carbon emitted by manufacturing.

The key idea here is that "all worldwide GHG emissions" have to be counterbalanced or eliminated. E-vehicles have no emissions while they operate. If Europe's or California's GHG emissions decrease because their use of electric vehicles increases, we still can't call those places carbon-neutral. Unless we account for the GHGs and other ecological harms that increase during manufacturing or disposing of electric vehicles (or other "energy-efficient" manufactured goods), then we can't honestly call any place carbon neutral.

Also, how many trees should we plant to offset the production of one new vehicle?

Cradle-to-grave or Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). LCA should include every stage in a manufactured product's life: design, extraction, smelting, manufacturing of solvents and solders, transport of materials between stations, assembly, transport of the final product to its end-user, the product's usable life, repair, and disposal or recycling. LCA can also apply to delivery of electricity or telecommunications services.

Embodied (or embedded) energy refers to the energy used while manufacturing a product. The energy used to mine ores, wash them, transport them to smelters, smelt, manufacture chemicals and solvents and transport them to assembly plants, assemble circuit boards, bend and cut metals and plastics for the product's body, make packaging and ship the final product to its end-user"is embodied in the product. Looking from cradle-to-grave, most of a product's energy is consumed before its end-user turns the product on for the first time. For example, 81% of a laptop's total energy use is embodied. Every manufactured product (i.e. smartphones, solar panels, electric vehicles, etc.) also includes embodied greenhouse gases and toxic waste.

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Katie Singer writes about nature and technology in Letters to Greta. She spoke about the Internet's footprint in 2018, at the United Nations' Forum on Science, Technology & Innovation, and, in 2019, on a panel with the climatologist Dr. (more...)

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