National Level: From Territorial Inventory to Including Burdens of Imported and Exported Products
Quantifying the environmental impact of different lifestyles on national level would have to look at different adoption-levels, as e.g. sparsely distributed electro-charging stations means additional travel to recharge the vehicle and additional transport means to come to these stations and back home or to the office. On a national level of consumption, we can hence capture such effects on infrastructure within the country. The only secondary consequences that escape the analysis are changes in international infrastructure, such as e.g. airports, and via changed amount of imports from those countries.
On the national level, past studies on the nations “footprint” have often looked at
the territorial level only. However, since a number of years, more and more studies also consider the import and export of goods and delivery of international services, and the upstream burdens associated with their life cycles.
An advanced approach to this idea has been piloted in a study commission by the European Commission in 2008 on the consumption-based national resource efficiency (European Commission 2012): Territorial data, mostly based on official statistics, were combined with full process-based life cycle data for the 15 most important traded product groups. These product groups were represented by representative products (e.g. “passenger car” for the product group “road vehicles” or “methanol” for “organic chemicals”) and the inventories were scaled up to the amount of goods traded in each product group. The rest of trade was approximated by the mix of those that were explicitly modelled. It was moreover possible to model the inventories of the traded goods for the two or three most important source countries. Despite some weaknesses, particularly in the territorial data, the study could show for many impact categories that a shifting of burdens occurred from Europe to other countries, i.e. while territorial impacts were slowly reducing, due to an increased import or higher processed products, the overall EU consumption-based environmental impact is increasing with time.
The main sources of lack of accuracy and of uncertainty in such approaches – next to the mentioned territorial data that is weak in several impact categories – are limitations in life cycle data on specific products for a range of product groups, particularly more complex consumer products and services. Also, the approximation of a product group by one representative product carries a relevant uncertainty, which can be overcome only by increasing the number of products to approximate a product group. The recent increase in availability of Environmental Product Declarations and Footprints for all kinds of products is a promising development, which can be expected to substantially ease such calculations.
Such studies are valuable to inform policy makers about true consumption-based trends in environmental impact, and to identify the main product groups and trade partners from and to where such a shifting of burdens happens and inform related policies. One key advantage of this approach is that these studies can be tailored and further developed to be very specific on traded products to address specific policy questions. In contrast, Environmentally Extended Input Output (EEIO) studies are limited by the very broad range of whole industry sectors, which cannot well differentiate below industry sectors. Moreover, EEIO is based on economic relations across the economy, hence its life cycle data is closely correlated with money that is an important limiting factor to consumption as discussed above, hence will lead to only rough and possibly distorted results.
Global Level: The Sum of All Consumption Versus the Planetary Boundaries
Studies on global level necessarily take a more comprehensive perspective, including all human activities. Monitoring the overall environmental impact is a very high-level indicator that can be used also to evaluate in how far we surpass the planetary boundaries. It shows on the largest of scales and only slowly over years whether all the measures by individuals up to national governments and international agreements show success in terms of slowing or reversing the trend of increased environmental impact on a global level.
One important topic under discussion in the context of sustainable consumption is shifting production to low income countries with potentially lower environmental standards: Cheap products have often been criticized as increasing the environmental impact, as they allow for more consumption. If we moreover assume that the most cheap products are so because the staff in their supply-chain are poorly paid (next to general productivity increase), the cheaper products mean also a shifting of parts of the income and hence consumption from middle or higher income countries to low income countries, but also to richer people (in both low and high income countries), since the cheaper products mean they have additional household income available. As statistics show, the allocation of the available household income considerably varies depending on income level. The net effect of this consumption shift still needs to be quantified.