It Is Time to Get Serious About the Hidden Carbon Cost in Everyday Products

making a car

Embodied energy is a difficult concept but we have to start wrestling with it every day.

We do go on about embodied energy, which is one of the more obscure aspects about sustainability. It is the energy that it takes to make a product, but it is often dismissed, because everyone knows that driving an electric car has got to be better than a gasoline car for the environment, and study after study shows that the savings in carbon far outweigh the carbon expended making a new electric car, right?

Well, yes, but embodied carbon shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. Luis Gabriel Carmona of the University of Lisbon and Kai Whiting (who has the wonderful description as "Sustainability and Stoicism Researcher, Universidade de Lisboa") write about The hidden carbon cost of everyday products in The Conversation:

Heavy industry and the constant demand for consumer goods are key contributors to climate change. In fact, 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions are produced through the process of converting metal ores and fossil fuels into the cars, washing machines and electronic devices that help prop up the economy and make life a little more comfortable.

They are not just talking about going to electric cars here, but to more efficient ICE powered cars, or just buying new cars in general:

Carbon emissions from the exhaust pipe tell only part of the story. To get a full sense of the carbon footprint of a car, you have to consider those emissions that go into producing the raw materials and digging a hole in the ground twice – once to extract the metals contained in the car, once to dump them when they can no longer be recycled.

They suggest that with everything we do and buy, we should be informed about the embodied carbon so that we can make choices.

On an individual level people must vote with their money. It’s time to leave behind the laggards who hide the cost of the carbon contained within their products and who design them to fail in order to put profits before people and the environment.

So what does this have to do with beer?

Promo image. Take off, eh?

Take off, eh?/Promo image

This raises the issue of what I have called the Fallacy of false choices, where Americans have to decide between beer in cans or disposable bottles, but are not offered the choice of returnable bottles. People have to have information and legitimate choices if they are going to vote with their money. We can't just think about whether an electric car is better than an ICE powered car; we have to think about alternatives like electric bikes with less embodied energy as well as operating energy. We have to think about designing really fabulous, attractive and affordable multiple family housing that has so much less structure and surface area and embodied energy per occupant and makes walking and cycling possible. We have to build great streets that people really want to walk in.

Talking about getting rid of cars (or even asking them not to go through red lights as Matt Galloway did) is not popular, and change in our streets is going to be hard. Complaining about single family suburban housing is not a winning strategy either. But if you look at things through the lens of embodied energy, a lot of things change.

Among architects, embodied energy is on the table; that's one reason that wood has become so popular. Carmona and Whiting suggest that we should be thinking about it with cars. I would make the case that we have to think about it in everything, from the way we get around to the food and beer we drink.