How important is the Carbon Footprint? Q3 - Prof.dr.ir. Krikke - DURABILIT
There is a surprisingly large number of people who think that carbon foot printing is a new thing. They are obviously not aware of the fact that it has been around for decades—as part of a larger whole named life cycle assessment. However, carbon foot printing (CFP) today is considered the most important environmental indicator and it has become really trendy. But as with all glamour, not all that glitters is gold.
A quick poll on the web learns that over 80% of American consumers hate the carbon footprint. Arguing that preserving the environment is essential for our kids makes no sense as I experienced lately with one our American students that I ran into at the local McDonalds (mind you, students from other countries would probably respond in the same manner). Just the other day I read in a daily newspaper that young people do not use energy efficiently. And in my experience many senior citizens act young for their age – they don’t care either.
There is an continuing debate amongst scholars to what extent CFP is a reliable measure for environmental footprints. Al Gore convinced many of us in the period 2000-2010. But there is increasingly doubt, not regarding global warming as such but with respect to its causes. CFP opponents point out that there is insufficient hard evidence that carbon emissions really cause the green house effect. Suppose these scholars are right? Could global warming be just an natural phenomenon, is it caused by other factors? Is it in fact completely beyond our control and do we just have to learn to live with it?
What puzzles me most is that the overarching question remains untouched in many discussions, in business, amongst scholars and in politics:
Is –despite everything- CFP useful as a policy instrument?
Even if we presume that carbon emission in itself is not harmful to the environment, we should ask ourselves if it does not at least provide a decent proxy for other more damaging environmental impacts. And what are the alternatives? We can calculate a full Life Cycle assessment, but unfortunately is a tedious and expensive undertaking and not without methodological troubles. A large set of streamlined, alternative footprints methods is available, such as energy, material or water balances. Can we complement carbon by reliable measurements of other greenhouse gasses? As it looks now CFP is a partial indicator of our footprint but certainly not full proof. It does need to be complemented one way or the other to make it a “real” footprint indicator.
What is real and what is not is however not the only criterion. Fact is that CFP generated momentum for numerous initiatives, amongst which our greener network calculator. Undeniably, many methodological issues need to be solved such as how to define system borders, data collection, aggregation of different impacts into one score and choosing the proper life cycle stages (reuse for example is often not included). But simply to abandon CFP now goes too far.
Have we backed the wrong horse all this time? I don't think so. CFP is just a first step, we should further improve it.
Love it, or hate it? Or change it?