There are a lot of terms out there relating to technologies and techniques designed to help reduce the effects of climate change and environmental harm: green, ecofriendly, energy efficient, etc. They range from vague to specific. And there is the opportunity for some marketers to muddy the waters with what is known as ‘greenwashing’ – a practice that involves exaggeration or even false claims in order to cash in on people’s concerns about climate change. Even the term ‘climate change’ really ought to be ‘climate chaos’ or ‘climate catastrophe.’
The overarching term ‘sustainability’ is also bandied about, usually in more serious circles, but it also can be vague in the way it is applied. So, I am writing a series of short articles to help clear it up and examine it in depth. I’ll start with an overview of the terms and concepts that sustainability encompasses.
- Environmental Impact: Everything we use has an impact on the environment when it is produced, used, and dealt with after it is no longer useful. Even the energy of installing something can have environmental impacts. In fact, it’s possible to look at environmental impact as the other side of the coin. Lowering somethings environmental impact increases its sustainability.
- Embodied Carbon: This is a specific form of environmental impact since everything we use requires energy before it is even in use – from garnering the raw materials to manufacture to all the transportation involved. This is called embodied energy. How much this carbon is released into the atmosphere making and using that energy is a thing’s embodied carbon. In some cases, this includes greenhouse gas emissions such as methane leaks from fracked natural gas, for example.
- Installation Impact: When something is installed, it takes energy and can often result in waste products that have to be dealt with, energy to install such as all the equipment it takes to build a building, and even the energy it takes to get the installers to the site.
- Operational Emissions: This is the amount of carbon and other pollutants released during the normal operation of something. The more energy efficient something is, the less energy it takes to operate it. The less pollution emitted when producing the energy in the first place, the less pollution is emitted per unit of energy. There are additional impacts involved as well. Even carbon-free hydroelectric power has environmental impacts associated with its production.
- Durability and Reliability: Many times, we fail to consider that, since the environment does, over time, ‘repair’ itself, the longer something reliably works and remains in use, the lower its overall environmental impact. This includes how much energy it takes to maintain and repair something’s functionality. Repair trucks, new parts, etc. are all part of how reliability can contribute to something’s environmental impact over the lifespan of that thing.
- Resilience: This is related to durability and reliability but includes how well something continues to operate, recovers, or otherwise remains useful after unforeseen disasters, changes in land-use, and upgrades in technology.
- A Cradle-to-Cradle Approach: Once something is no longer useful, as all things become, it has to be dealt with. Perhaps it ends up in a landfill. Perhaps it is recycled, reused, or repurposed. Or, often more likely, it ends up in a landfill. And of those things that cannot be put back into use, there will be further impacts. Something that is biodegradable and is industrially composted is much more sustainable than something that contains toxins and has not further use.
- Social Equity and Justice: Finally, it is critical to point out that the whole human carbon footprint must shrink, and this cannot happen if large populations at the poorer end of the socio-economic spectrum, are not included in the solution.
Ultimately, sustainability refers to a large, complex, systemic picture that relates to effects of what we make and use on the environment over time, and that, in turn, is largely measured in something that nature does not, generally produce without our help: waste. In the subsequent articles in this series, I will explore each of these concepts in depth.