An unknown source of global warming: all our business

Research by the city of Portland, Oregon found that consumer goods made elsewhere generated more than twice the amount of emissions produced locally. Consumption-based emissions inventories, such as those conducted in Oregon over the past decade, can help states better understand climate impacts and refine their emission reduction strategies. (Courtesy of Portland, Oregon Climate Action Plan, 2015)

Vacations promised to be high in fun and low in carbon. Rather than flying somewhere and staying in a hotel, we would sail to a solar-powered cabin. Our only use of fossil fuel would involve some propane to cook meals.

In this carbon accounting, however, we had unwittingly screwed up the books. Greenhouse gas emissions from our transportation and building use would be minimal, that’s true. But what about coolers of food and bags of clothes, not to mention the boat itself?

It’s easy to forget gray energy — all the energy that goes into producing, transporting and disposing — of the things we consume and use every day. While much of this energy is spent away from Maine, the emissions generated are still fueling the global climate crisis.

How to explain the impact on greenhouse gases of a tube of sunscreen? This requires analyzing emissions throughout its life cycle, including the extraction of mineral ingredients and the extraction of fossil fuels used in the plastic container, the transport of raw materials and finished products, the process manufacturing and finally either its incineration or its disposal in landfill (since these tubes are generally not recycled).

Are these life cycle emissions a lot? Not for a single tube of sunscreen, but for everything we consume nationwide, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 42% of total greenhouse gas emissions back to the handling of materials throughout their lifespan. Other estimates put this figure up to 80 percent. Clearly, we need to better assess the extent to which consumption is causing global warming.

Beyond that, we need to reassess the amount of things we buy and use, recognizing – as the European Environment Agency has noted – that unsustainable consumption is “the mother of all environmental problems.”

Get a global view

Maine primarily uses an EPA”state inventory toolto track greenhouse gas emissions, which has been refined over many years and provides a format consistent with other states and with the National Emissions Inventory. It’s particularly good at reporting emissions from in-state energy consumption sources like transportation and buildings, but it assumes the state is an isolated geographic bubble like a snow globe, said Nathan Robbins, climate change program manager at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

The current tool does not include upstream emissions of food and merchandise from outside the state’s borders, and Maine climate action plan, which relied mainly on data from the State inventory tool, neglects the climate impacts of consumption.

Most states currently rely on inventories that estimate greenhouse gas emissions generated within their own borders, a “snowball” approach that neglects consumer goods imported from around the world. Maine will soon complement this approach with a consumption-based emissions inventory that accounts for products made elsewhere but used or consumed in Maine. (Graphic courtesy of Minnesota Pollution Control Agency)

Omissions in emissions accounting can lead to an unfair form of “global burden shifting,” said Cynthia Isenhour, associate professor of anthropology and climate change at the University of Maine. It is essential to understand “not only where greenhouse gas emissions come from, but why”, she added. “Who benefits from these broadcasts? »

Americans buy and use tons of products made in countries like China and Mexico, added Isenhour, while “charging them to reduce these emissions”. By conventional measures, the US follows China as the main emitter of greenhouse gases, but our country is far largest “importer” of carbon dioxide emissions through the things we consume – much of it from China. Taking these emissions into account upstream makes the carbon impact of our nation even more excessive.

Follow Oregon’s lead

Oregon is alone among the states to have worked for more than a decade to assess the impact of consumption on greenhouse gas emissions. The purpose of this analysis is “not to stir people up,” said David Allaway, senior policy analyst with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, but to “activate the full suite of tools of the toolbox needed to deal with this existential crisis”. States that do not yet calculate consumption impacts “are not giving the public or policy makers a full picture of how their state is contributing to climate change,” he added, and “thus shortening the list of possible solutions.

Oregon’s leadership helped inspire the North East Waste Managers Associations (NEWMOA) and Northeast Recycling Council propose to their Member States to continue consumption-based emissions inventories similar to that of Oregon, working in conjunction with the EPA.

For Maine, this proposal represented “great synergy,” Robbins said, offering a chance to complete the inventory in the state and begin to answer questions that arose during the climate action plan process. on the impact of emissions from consumer goods manufactured elsewhere.

Through a regional pilot project launched last fall, participating states in the Northeast will experience a family of models that the EPA has developed to estimate the environmental and economic impacts associated with the production and consumption of goods. Several states, including Maine, plan to complete a consumption-based emissions inventory by spring 2023.

It’s too early to predict how Maine might use its new inventory, Robbins said, but NEWMOA executive director Terri Goldberg said “we’re watching what’s happening in Oregon closely,” which has already done several updates to its original consumption-based inventory. emissions inventory.

Oregon’s inventories have begun to shape policy responses on issues ranging from food rescue to building materials. Documentation of high greenhouse gas emissions from the production of unused food prompted Oregon to commit to reducing food waste by 50% by 2030. The state is committed life cycle analyzes of different foods and change direction — like Maine is – at saving and redirecting food at the start of the production process.

Oregonwho like Maine has adopted a Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) Act to minimize packaging waste, built into this law incentives for producers to assess and disclose life cycle analyzes of their products. Figures for water use and greenhouse gas emissions will provide more reliable indicators of environmental impact than vague terms like “recyclable” or “compostable,” Allaway said.

‘New and exciting possibilities’

Maine’s groundbreaking EPR law will generate substantial revenue, much of which will go to municipalities for increased recycling. Some funds could be used to improve Maine’s “vibrant and strong reuse economy,” Isenhour noted, helping to foster more repairs, reuse and waste reduction.

Any challenge to unlimited consumption risks being “seen as a transgression of democracy and the capitalist structure”, Isenhour said, but such a reassessment does not involve sacrifice; “It opens up new and exciting possibilities.” Research done at the University of Maine found abundant environmental and social benefits associated with the reuse economy.

Journalist JB McKinnon came to an equally optimistic conclusion in his recent book, The day the world stops shopping: how ending consumerism saves the environment and ourselves“Evidence suggests that a life in a low-consumption society really can be better, with less stress, less work…and more time for the people and things that matter most.”

Maybe we had the right vision for this vacation after all…we just need to buy less stuff and travel light.

Teresa H. Sadler