Climate change: the responsibility we have
In early August 2021, the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report was published. It confirmed what we already knew: climate change is here and we have to act now. That has become inevitable even to the people that are a bit skeptical about climate change. But what are the right questions to ask? And how can we go about answering them?
Immediately after the publication of the report, and ever since, a lot of articles, blogs, videos, and other content have been published around this. Mostly, they repeat that we have to act now. One question has become more relevant than ever: what is preventing companies and people to act?
This is a question that has not been brought up that often. It has the same kind of difficulty as the question that led to the start of PRé and SimaPro in 1990: what is actually sustainable? There are a lot of ideas about this, but not many well-substantiated answers. We need a common language, and that’s is where the numbers come in. In the end, “what gets measured, gets managed” also applies to sustainability. To change our impact, we need to have a thorough understanding of it.
First understanding, then action
Many companies are reporting on their impact, but does that really mean they have embedded impact measurement in their daily routines? Many simple impact calculators are available, but do these help to make informed decisions that result in more sustainable products or consumer behavior? And are these calculations transparent at all, or is the method proprietary? Using impact calculators is a good first step, but it is simply not enough. We have to go beyond that, to understand our impacts throughout the value chain. And not only for climate change, but for other impacts too. Otherwise, solving the climate crisis will drive us into the next one – a biodiversity crisis, for instance. We need to have the full picture based on a single source of truth.
That is hard work and requires investing in capabilities. Reality is not as simple as we would like it to be. Mapping out a product’s entire life cycle, knowing the emissions for each step, identifying the hotspots, building the models that are the foundation for the calculations….it can be a daunting task. The good news is that there is a lot of knowledge available. And if we collaborate, we can unlock that knowledge and use it to drive sustainable change.
Three steps to a higher level of understanding
Most importantly, we need to build on each other’s work. Common practice right now is that LCA practitioners basically start from scratch for every study. What if we can start with a model that already exists – that is shared by the community – and feed that with the specific primary data? This is already happening in some cases, for instance with product environmental footprint (PEF) and some sector organizations. If we could do this at a much larger scale, it would accelerate the availability of high-quality data, making it faster and easier for companies and other organizations to implement sustainability. But for that, we need to be willing to share our knowledge.
Secondly, we need to start thinking about using life cycle assessment (LCA) models for continuous interaction and improvement, rather than one-off studies. The principles remain the same, but instead of working from a printed report, people should be able to continuously interact with the data and use it for their specific purpose….from reporting, to product development, consumer information, and many more. It is a different way of thinking, but if we make the change, it will increase the value of LCA tremendously.
Last, but not least: we need to think in different levels of detail. As LCA practitioners, we like to dig into the details. It’s hard to imagine that this is too much for some people. But to be relevant for a large majority of decision-makers, we need to be able to provide simple, aggregated data. Still, the figure needs to be based on advanced models, to make sure that the results are robust, that people can drill down in the results and that it is possible to adapt the study to future changes. Our work needs to become “living models” rather than static snapshots.
There’s no time like the present
For this to happen, we don’t have to wait for the governments and policymakers to come to an agreement. Politics is complex and takes time, and we don’t have that. As individuals and organizations, we can take responsibility now, and get to work.
Beyond individual responsibility and actions, it’s even more important to act as a community and collaborate. If we can bring together our collective intelligence as a community, I’m convinced we can make footprinting as normal as a price tag. That’s what we’re aiming for at PRé, and what we want to contribute to the battle against climate change.
Sustainability is all about impact. Positive impact makes you meaningful. But first you have to know where you are making an impact and where you can create shared value. That’s where PRé comes in. Pinpointing your impact is an essential starting point for taking joint action with people and organisations in your ecosystem. The combination of sustainability and social business can make a real change in the way we do business.