It Depends

L.M. Ladron de Guevara

OpenClipart-Vectors @ Pixibay. Further editing by L.M.Ladron

Objective: to discuss how going in ‘absolute mode’ could harm the environment, even if we are trying to do the right thing.

For many years I have been asking whether some environmental solutions or sustainability ideas are good or not, and the longer I live, the more certain I am about my answer: it depends. I have learned that not all environmental solutions fit everyone or every business. We are all quite different, and our circumstances and contexts differ.

This means we need to be careful when making decisions regarding environmental and sustainability issues. After all, the last thing we want to do is think that we are helping to solve an environmental/sustainability problem when, in fact, we are not.

Let me show you what I mean with two examples:

Electric Vehicles are ‘absolutely better’ for the environment than Internal Combustion Engine vehicles.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a big advocate of Electric Vehicles (EV), but what would you say if I told you that in some cases an EV could produce as many greenhouse gases as an Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicle? Or that for most impact categories ICE vehicles come up better than EVs? Perhaps you would say, Well, how come?

Impact category: class representing environmental issues of concern to which life cycle inventory analysis results may be assigned, as defined by ISO 14040.

I recently came across an article from the University of Trier with open access that I can use to explain why choosing an EV over an ICE might not be a straightforward decision. If the vehicle’s battery was produced using fossil fuel power, and the vehicle has a “big” battery, and the mix of the power source to charge the vehicle is based mainly on fossil fuels, then, that EV is not doing much for the environment. On the other hand, if the EV’s battery was produced with cleaner energy, the size is not so big, and the power source for charging it is cleaner, then, voila!, the EV helps the environment by cutting down GHG emissions. However, climate change may not be the only environmental crisis in our future, and while EVs can sometimes be better (under the right circumstances and regarding GHG emissions) than ICE vehicles, for other impact categories they don’t look good. For instance, when looking at the results of different types of eco-toxicity, one can see there is still a ‘long road to travel’ on the innovation route for EVs.

What have I learned? I’m still planning to buy an EV, but the day I do, I should at least check the source of the battery, the size of the battery and the power source for charging it. Then, I would be more content with my decision. Also, I think EV producers should promote Life Cycle Assessments of their products and parts, which, by the way, would benefit everyone.

Renewable energies are ‘absolutely better’ for the environment than fossil fuels.

The previous example took me to this next conundrum, which is especially interesting for me as I have a master’s degree in renewable energies, and I have worked for the oil and gas industry quite a while. So again, although I’m a big advocate of renewable energies, it is important to recognise their cons so that we can all imagine a better future together. Are renewable energies better for the environment than fossil fuels? My answer: it depends. If we are talking about climate change, yes, they are, especially wind energy. However, if we are talking about other environmental aspects, renewable energies fall short. The following video from 6 years ago could help us understand some of the difficulties that renewable energies faced then and still face now.

What have I learned? There is no magical solution. For now, one source of energy is not going to solve all our energy production problems, and this includes nuclear energy.

On the plus side, I recognise this could be a good opportunity to think outside the box. How about if we tackle the problem from the use side? Let’s talk about energy efficiency in power grids, appliances and equipment. How about if we tackle the problem from the cause side? Let’s talk about our habits: what we buy, what we do, and why we do it. How about if we tackle the problem from the context perspective? Let’s talk about how many people can fit on this awesome planet, in our cities and in our rural areas.

Although energy efficiency is important, what are we trying to make more efficient? As an energy engineer this is something that I think about with every site I visit. Am I enabling unsustainable behavior by sugar coating a problem? Industrial Energy Efficiency Expert, Glen Baxter

How to avoid the ‘absolute mode’?

From my point of view there are 4 basic things one could do to avoid the ‘absolute mode’:

  • Understand your context and circumstances. For instance, if you use energy from a country with a high percentage of renewable energies, maybe investing in a renewable energy system to lower your carbon emissions wouldn’t pay off as much as investing in other sustainable initiatives.
  • Re-think the situation. Try to tackle the problem from different sides or perspectives. That way you might find other solutions and, therefore, new avenues to solve your problem.
  • Search and research. Be the Devil’s advocate and find the reasons why you shouldn’t go ahead with the solution you have in mind. This would also help you bulletproof your final decision and get ready to meet detractors head on.
  • Talk to an expert. When possible, reach out to savvy people to discuss your findings and ideas as this could bring the last touches your project or plan needed.

Please let me know in the comments section if there is a topic that interests you regarding sustainability. I’ll do my very best to share my findings and thoughts.

🌟Special thanks to my extraordinary editor: Andrea Lomas. Without you this wouldn’t have been possible.

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