Flaws of eco-efficiency approach

[I originally posted this to another blog in 2011. Interesting how peak oil isn’t much discussed as an issue any more]

When less is not more

The low carbon economy promotes eco-efficiency: using fewer resources, releasing less pollution, having a less negative impact. Performing, if you like, with less.

You’ll be familiar with its mantra: Reduce Reuse Recycle. Way to go, right?

Well actually… no.

Listening to Dame Ellen MacArthur at the BASE 2011 conference, delegates heard – many perhaps for the first time – how the eco-efficiency approach is fundamentally flawed: “It just ekes things out longer”, she explained.

MacArthur has clearly been influenced by Braungart and McDonough’s book ‘Cradle to Cradle’, in which we discover why ‘being less bad is no good’. They argue:

“Reduction is the central tenet of eco-efficiency. But reduction does not halt depletion and destruction – it only slows them down, allowing them to take place in smaller increments over a longer period of time.”

Improving eco-efficiency with better insulated buildings can affect indoor air quality to the detriment of human health. It seems even tiny amounts of dangerous chemicals like the endocrine disruptors found in many plastics and consumer goods can adversely affect our health. Less than a quarter of chemical substances used by industry today have been tested for their effect on living systems.

Materials like paper and plastics were never designed to be safely burned and so can release toxins into the air when incinerated. Similarly, reusing materials is also potentially problematic. Remember that next time you think about wearing clothes made of fibres from recycled plastic bottles – fibres containing toxins, not designed to be worn next to the human skin! Just because a material is reused or recycled doesn’t make it benign.

Braungart and McDonough also describe how most recycling is actually downcycling. The quality of plastics and metals such as steel, copper and aluminium are reduced over time due to being mixed with other materials in the recycling process, resulting in weaker and less useful products. This means that other (possibly toxic) substances have to be added to increase performance quality.

It is an enlightening read.

Reframe to positive

The challenge they present is this: to re-design the way we make things so that they actually have a positive impact, rather than just a less harmful one. This means materials that don’t lose their quality over time. Products that are specifically designed with their next use in mind. Systems that close the loop and make their outputs the inputs for another cycle, or as Braungart and McDonough put it, systems where ‘waste equals food’.

Reframing in this way is very exciting, and also very uncomfortable for it demands that we adopt a new mindset and question the value of our previous efforts to do good. It means we have to change how we do things and change is painful, especially when we’ve made an emotional (and financial) investment in doing it the eco-efficiency way.

The rebound effect and intrinsic values

However, the eco-efficiency approach of the low carbon economy has other unintended negative consequences in the rebound effect, a phenomenon that could seriously undermine attempts to tackle climate change.

The rebound effect occurs when some of the benefits from energy efficiency are cancelled out by changes in people’s behaviour in other areas. There is evidence for example that people spend money saved on energy bills on flights abroad or on using the car more, and that they turn up the heating in a newly insulated house. American thinktank the Breakthrough Institute warns in a recent report:

“For every two steps forward we take with below-cost efficiency, rebound effects mean we take one or more steps backwards, sometimes enough to completely erode the initial gains made”

According to another study, people who perceive themselves as leading green lifestyles are often the most carbon-intensive, rewarding themselves for their good eco-friendly behaviour with a skiing holiday abroad.

The Breakthrough Institute estimates that 10-30% of energy savings from efficient cars and home are lost. However, they find that the highest rebound in energy use from efficiency occurs in industry and commerce.

The Common Cause report published by WWF would seem to offer an explanation. It is not a recent finding that there is a close connection between values and behaviour, emotions and decision-making, but new psychological research suggests people are motivated to act in a particular way by either intrinsic or extrinsic values.

Extrinsic values are associated with a concern for financial success, status, power, consumerism and self-advancement. People with strong extrinsic values feel less empathy and are less concerned about human rights and the environment. Intrinsic values on the other hand, are concerned with family, friends, community and self-acceptance. Values that are ‘greater then self’.  Unsurprisingly, people with strong intrinsic values have more empathy and more concern for human rights and the environment. Crucially, these values are not fixed. They are shaped by our social environment, and can be activated, strengthened and reinforced. The media plays a particularly powerful role in this.

The implications of these findings are enormous. In appealing to people’s self interest in saving money, eco-efficiency actually serves to strengthen extrinsic values – the very values that undermine effective pro-environmental behaviour change.

But it doesn’t end there! Eco-efficiency is flawed in other ways too.

Triple challenge: climate change, peak oil & biodiversity loss

Eco-efficiency doesn’t address the huge looming issue of peak oil that marks the end of cheap and plentiful oil. We have become dependent on oil in all aspects of our lives: for energy, transport, fertilisers and pesticides involved in food production. Many products are derived from oil: plastics, synthetic fibres, drugs, laminates, paints, inks…

For several years, the Transition movement has been working hard to raise awareness of the issues of peak global oil production and of the need to prepare for it now in order to increase resilience and reduce vulnerability to its effects. With recent events in the Middle East, it seems governments are now waking up: Climate and Energy secretary Chris Huhne warns that increasing oil prices could cost the UK economy £45billion over 2 years.

However, it is not just peak oil that is missing from the low carbon economy. It also doesn’t sufficiently take into account the other major global problem: biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, which contribute to scarcity and increased cost of natural resources. The UN’s 2010 Biodiversity report states that the economic benefits of protecting biodiversity are huge. It warns that if the value of the natural world is not factored into the global economic system then the environment will become more fragile and less resilient to shocks, risking human lives and livelihoods.

Climate change, peak oil and biodiversity loss are interconnected and need to be dealt with together. These triple challenges that result in scarcity and degradation of natural resources, and spiralling energy, goods and food prices have major implications for human quality of life, pushing hundreds of millions of people worldwide into hunger, triggering mass migration and sparking civil unrest. It is already happening.

Eco-efficiency: Reduce Recycle Reuse. With its non-systemic approach, it doesn’t seem quite so smart anymore, does it?

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