The “Upstream Story” That Hasn’t Been Told

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Executive Director, Bill Sheehan, Ph.D.After ten years as Product Policy Institute we changed our organization’s name to UPSTREAM at the end of 2013. We changed our name to emphasize that critical environmental solutions to reducing environmental impacts of products – manufactured goods and food – lie “upstream” of consumers, before purchase. Critical production impacts include the energy, measured in greenhouse gas emissions, it took to extract, harvest, manufacture, transport and sell goods to consumers. A shorthand way of talking about greenhouse gas emission impacts of materials is in terms of embodied energy – how much energy was used to make a product or grow a food item and bring it to the place where a consumer buys it.

At aggregate levels (towns, regions, nations, or global), the embodied energy of materials is huge. A 2009 UPSTREAM white paper calculated that the greenhouse gas impacts of all goods consumed (including use but without food) is 44% of all US emissions globally. The percentage is larger than our domestic emissions because we import many products, often made with carbon-polluting energy sources.

Yet the community of organizations, governments, and foundations addressing climate disruption focuses almost exclusively on activities that involve direct inputs of energy – especially power generation, transportation, and building heating and cooling.

Why is there a blind spot to addressing energy embodied in manufactured stuff?

One reason is that embodied energy in materials is more abstract, less tangible, than energy used directly. It’s easy to see how heating or cooling a home or driving a car result in greenhouse gas emissions. The emissions embodied in materials are not only indirect, they are more complex, involving numerous actors and processes, often in complex global supply chains.

Another reason for the blind spot may be awkwardness of talking about consumption. Production is part of a production-consumption system in which producers depend on consumers to buy products. Talking about consumption raises fundamental lifestyle and sufficiency issues for the wealthy, and justice and inequality issues for the have-nots.

Once the significance of embodied energy is grasped, optimal actions to reduce them are not always clear. Local and state governments, especially in the Pacific Northwest, have been using consumption-based greenhouse gas accounting for several years now. One of the most comprehensive analyses was done by King County Washington (home of Seattle), most recently updated in 2012. The latest report states that greenhouse gas emissions “associated with producing [italics in original] goods and services (including materials and manufacturing) comprise more than 60 percent of all consumption-based emissions.”

So how can those emissions be reduced? The King County report includes a graph that attempts to portray the economic activities in relation to assumed potential for local policy influence.

Assessment of GHC omissions - blog-post-9-2014

Assessment of GHC omissions sources and recommended scopes.
Figure 7 in Greenhouse Gas Emissions from King County – Summary, February 2012.

In the graph above, bubble size is drawn to reflect quantity of emissions. The y-axis portrays measurability, or ease of quantifying emissions, with activities higher on the graph presumed to be easier to quantify (from the local governments perspective). Obviously, activities occurring within King County are generally easier for County government staff to measure than are activities that take place outside the local area. Likewise, in-area activities are generally more amenable to direct local government policy influence (x-axis) than are those that occur outside the local area.

The graph suggests that King County government regards local building energy use and local vehicle travel as the two biggest-bang-for-the buck areas to concentrate on.  Waste (recycling, composting, methane capture at landfills) is also high in the upper right quadrant, but it’s potential contribution to reducing total greenhouse gas emissions is small due to the fact that most emissions associated with materials occur during production, “upstream” of the consumer. (Some observers believe that methane escaping from landfills is grossly underestimated.)

The energy embodied in manufactured goods, food and construction materials is huge, but on the graph they lie in the lower left quadrant where the policy people of King County believe they have fewer means to reduce those emissions.

However, some communities are experimenting with innovative programs to influence consumption behavior and local governments are not powerless to influence production of goods sold in their jurisdiction. In future posts I’ll look at what progressive communities are doing to address greenhouse gas emissions from the production and consumption of materials.

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