Deadly six pack

Deadly six pack

The six pack. No, we are not referring to the latest Bollywood fad. The six pack, in the environmental sense, refers to the six most harmful greenhouse gases (GHGs) that contribute to climate change. They include carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O), methane (CH4), sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and perfluorocarbons (PFCs).

The common man is familiar with traffic police demanding emission certificates for traffic offences. The aim is to keep carbon emissions under control. No doubt, fossil fuel used in automobiles is the major contributing factor of emissions globally. However, how many people think about carbon emissions from essentials used in daily life? For example, how much carbon does a litre of milk or a pound of bread emit into the environment in their making?  

Consumerism and climate change
High levels of consumerism are fuelling economic growth and hence causing climate change. Everything one purchases and consumes suits individual lifestyles, depletes natural resources from the environment and in return adds carbon and other pollutants into the environment. Agriculture: Growing foodgrains, fruits etc. makes use of chemical fertilisers and every yield degrades the quality of soil while leaving behind tons of carbon in the soil.

Trees are cut to make furniture; and a tree can absorb about 1.2 tons of carbon in its lifetime.  Electronic goods are discarded (e-waste) and disposing them without impacting the environment is a major problem.  Recently reported reduction in emissions by consumer goods manufacturers is simply because their production has plummeted due to lack of demand in the economic downturn.

The recession makes that relationship easy to understand: closed factories don’t spew carbon dioxide; the jobless drive lesser and turn down their air-conditioners and pool heaters; struggling corporations and families cut back on air travel; even affluent people buy less.

The recent drop in carbon credit prices by over 60 per cent compared to 2008 is because manufacturers no more need them at the same levels as with the booming economy. The manufacturing industry also contributes to carbon emissions. There are initiatives and regulations that govern this industry in most developed countries. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1988 to assess scientific and socio-economic information on climate change and its impact.

Efficiency: Increased mileage?
Much of the debate is on carbon reduction of emissions-intense industries. This is through bringing in continuous improvement and delivering more “value” per unit produced. An automobile can reduce emissions by increasing fuel efficiency. The counter argument is that it is a “quick fix” because people would still drive around and burn fuel, at the best at a slower rate.  Hence this can only delay emissions and buy us more time.

Restructuring supply chain
Industries need to restructure their supply chain and bring in processes and technologies to replace “efficient yet polluting” ones. It might mean that the automobile industry needs to look at retiring these technologies and adapt to greener means like fuel cells, electric vehicles etc. It is also important to ensure that redundant technologies are not redeployed.

Clean development mechanisms
True sustainability is to have economic development activities that do not deplete or pollute natural resources and their capacities. It means that manufacturers move towards CDMs that are the least polluting and closest to sustainability.

Carbon footprinting
Manufacturers need to start footprinting carbon dioxide and other gases so that they know which phase of manufacturing is the most polluting and the potential areas for reductions and then start reducing them.

One initiative is to reduce emission of products that we buy for daily use. This involves the complete lifecycle of how the product evolved to when it reached the shelves of local shops or supermarkets.

The final part is the recycling aspect. The aim is to attract a larger population of consumers for our goods including ‘green buyers’. The introduction of ‘carbon label’ communicates to the consumer the ‘green’ credentials during its manufacturing.

Life cycle assessment
Carbon labelling is a way of communicating and engaging with consumers about the carbon in a product that is being adopted by manufacturers and retailers. A European supermarket chain recently introduced ‘carbon-count labels’ on its own branded products. This label states the CO2 in grams put into the atmosphere for an individual product by their manufacture and distribution.

Total carbon in a unit of a product can be calculated by analysing raw materials in making a product, how they are grown or procured from, followed by manufacturing, distribution, retailing, usage and finally disposal and recycling. The CO2 in each of these steps is added to derive the carbon footprint or carbon label of that product.

Consumer awareness
The message of consumer awareness by way of carbon labelling can be synergised with health. Merely buying low carbon chips won’t change anything; we need to reduce the percentage of high impact foods in our diet.

There are things consumers can do on their own in terms of their purchases (of greener products), usage (planning consumption without wastage) and responsible disposal (recycling to a greater extent).  According to statistics, in the UK alone, around 6.7 million tonnes of food is wasted every year. And 61 per cent of that food (4.1 million tonnes) could be eaten if it were planned, stored and managed better. Every ton of food waste is responsible for 4.5 tons of carbon dioxide, so stopping this waste could avoid 18 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, the equivalent of taking 20 per cent cars off the road.

The UK government’s target of reducing emissions by 80 per cent in 30 years might trigger a revolution as big as the first industrial revolution over a century ago. In terms of reducing emissions, carbon labelling alone won’t be enough, but it is a tool that can help create increased awareness among consumers and demand green products from manufacturers. 

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