Carbon metrics and life cycle analysis (LCA) drive sustainability measurement. But, even today, their science and application remains inexact.
Every C-suite should, by now, have some understanding of both carbon metrics and LCA. Respectively, these are the tools corporates use to make sense of the embedded carbon involved in their products, services, operations and overall footprint.
So far, so good. It’s plain that both globally and in the UK, we urgently need these baselines. They help establish not only the true carbon emissions and impacts of what we buy and sell, but can also guide the deployment of green finance, or indeed carbon taxation that should lead us towards a more sustainable planet.
But, there is a hitch. Carbon metrics and LCA are anything but simple, so deep research and interrogation is needed before applying them to corporate sustainability strategy.
Does LCA work outside the lab?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take a vast amount of research to uncover issues. A recent paper in Science News points to precisely the problems the wider corporate community faces when managing carbon metrics and LCA correctly.
The paper, released at the tail end of 2021, seeks answers on the environmental and social impacts of cobalt mining. Knowing these is essential because cobalt is a key constituent within lithium-ion batteries, which for the time being remain key to rolling out electric vehicles (EVs).
If you’re going to major on EVS as a panacea to carbon emissions, you had better be sure they hit the right marks on sustainability, both environmental and social.
But the study, by Northwestern University, sheds doubt on this. “We have the framework and tools available to compare the environmental costs of automobiles that run on fossil fuels to battery-powered vehicles,” Northwestern’s Jennifer Dunn, who led the study, told Science Daily.
“I can tell you the greenhouse gas emissions per mile for either one. But when it comes to the social effects, we don’t have the same capability for direct comparison. For many engineers, it’s easier to measure or calculate environmental effects than to understand the social conditions in a faraway country that they have never set foot in.”
The problem surrounds how researchers have attempted to develop frameworks to evaluate social life cycle assessments (S-LCA); used to understand how emerging technologies affect human health and wellbeing.
Why S-LCA matters
It appears that the Northwestern researchers found cobalt mining was associated with increases in violence, substance abuse, food and water insecurity and physical and mental health challenges. Corporates don’t want that list cropping up regarding how they make EV batteries.
Locals reported losing communal land, farmland and homes, which miners dug up in order to extract cobalt. Without farmland, Congolese people were sometimes forced to cross international borders into Zambia just to purchase food.
The challenge for business is this; as industry leaders move toward decarbonisation to slow, stop or even reverse climate change, technologies are increasingly relying on batteries instead of fossil fuels.
Unfortunately, the effects of these technologies on social wellbeing are understudied and data related to their effects is insufficient for use in policy-making decisions.
That’s a massive problem for corporates. Imagine you’re on the C-suite of a major automotive manufacturer, tasked with determining how to power EVs.
You can be pretty sure that when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, you are on to a winner. But that’s not a great deal of use if the social impacts of cobalt mining cause major protests at your next annual board meeting and paint you as an exploitative business.
There’s no simple fix. It seems the Northwestern researchers found little in the way of established guidance on best practices for conducting S-LCA, including little on how to conduct interviews and a lack of consensus on how to use and analyse data from stakeholders.
“Most of this work has been conceptualised by natural scientists who have limited knowledge about social impacts,” Dunn said. “Measuring environmental effects of a technology is sometimes as simple as adding a sensor to measure emissions. But trying to measure intangible social effects like mental health is much harder.”
Plainly, LCA and carbon metrics demand corporate caution. And here’s another reminder why it’s all so important.