The Carbon Footprint: is it enough?

Since environmentally-friendly cars ceased to be ‘an option’ and became ‘a necessity’, as predicted by President of Toyota Motors Jujio Cho back in 2004, we have begun experimenting with millions of different fresh ways to save the planet. A reboot of our collective mentality in the fight against climate change has transitioned into new habits, backed by a post-pandemic year that has shaped the UK’s green economy to become nearly four times larger than the manufacturing sector. 


The last 150 years have seen human activities responsible for escalating greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. The most significant sources of green waste in the UK come from burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation - and we try to contain this score in many ways, including individual choices that affect the results. Today, over three-quarters of adults in Great Britain worry about the fate of our planet.  More of us than ever are thriving on taking action - and love the Earth - and, consequently, a particular approach has emerged: the Carbon Footprint.   


The system is simple and familiar: sum up all the gas emissions caused by yourself as an individual, expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). This is a representation of the trail of waste you leave behind yourself.   In an attempt to improve this situation, we focus on offsetting or reducing this by considering what we can achieve through our small actions, promoting our beneficial self-elected efforts.  This includes the field of mobility as one of the primary spotlights of collateral damage. 


For the majority of those who are environmentally friendly and own a vehicle, taking precautions and assuming responsible positions seems fairly straightforward - an accessible achievement. Driving tips help your environmental impact - representing a beneficial band-aid for waste reduction -  and there is no shortage of guidance and information when you surf for an online ‘consultation’. Timing your journeys to sidestep rush hour, gently approaching driving, maintaining your vehicle to lengthen its life, or going electric and getting rid of your old car - all represent elements of a personal solution. 


But the issue doesn’t end there - in fact, it doesn’t end at all. The entire lifecycle of your vehicle has environmental repercussions and this is something that the Carbon Footprint of your daily life fails to encapsulate.  But when we fail to fully understand the climate impact of individual actions, are we also limiting our duties towards the environment?


Responsibility is essential when we mention ethical principles, but we often fail to consider the full extent of this in our carbon footprint calculations.  Purchasing a new vehicle, for example, increases our impact on the environment through the emissions generated by the construction and delivery of the car.  A car sale allows someone else to avoid the same generation of emissions - but still implies a responsibility for the vehicle's existence in the first place.  The same logic applies in most cases: car-renting, ride-sharing, route sharing, ride-hailing, and floating micro-mobility.  Even for other ‘green’ types of transportation - a bike, for example - how much responsibility should we individually take on board for the emissions its manufacture and maintenance generates?


Tailpipe emissions deserve a lot of attention, of course, but they represent only one ride in a long journey of climate damage. Vehicles consume energy and make emissions throughout their life, from the manufacturing of raw materials to the vehicle scrapyard.  We need to look at its entire life cycle to discover how green our vehicles really are. It’s the life cycle assessment that explores the journey as a whole. 


The question is: are we sidestepping our real responsibilities, miscalculating the impact our use of a vehicle really has on the environment?  Is the carbon footprint of daily life really giving you good advice or is it just paying lip service to the need to take action? 


Let’s consider what the entire life-cycle of a car looks like for a moment.  A vehicle uses energy and creates emissions well before being considered a vehicle. Creating the material that makes the car, for example, requires a lot of energy - and this process of material extraction produces emissions.  Manufacturing a vehicle?  More emissions. Finally, after someone buys the vehicle and starts driving it, we get the tailpipe emissions, generated by its usage. And of course, we will also need the energy to send it to the junkyard, do a bit of recycling and supply extra materials to produce more cars. Lifecycle after lifecycle, in a clear-cut circuit.


The actual choice of materials used also play a crucial role in the whole loop. When lighter materials are used in vehicles, their production emissions can ultimately counterbalance the reduction in vehicle emissions that come from the reduced weight. Suppose we don’t take into consideration the entire life cycle assessment approach. In that case, these critical trade-offs will be missed, and in the end, the supposedly environmentally friendly ‘lightweight’ car will not improve the overall vehicle carbon footprint. 


But how important is this really?  Aren’t tailpipe emissions the lion’s share?  

Perhaps at the moment but, as vehicle powertrains become more efficient, material and vehicle production emissions will become more critical. The use of internal combustion engines means that 15% of the vehicle life cycle emissions are through material production. With advanced technologies such as plugin hybrids, that total will increase to 50% of lifecycle emissions in the future. As electricity is sourced from renewable power supplies - like wind or solar energy - the situation will completely change, with 85% of emissions coming from vehicle production. If we continue on a tailpipe-only regulations course, we give leeway for vehicle lifetime emissions to remain completely uncontrolled.  And with transport responsible for nearly 30% of the EU’s total emissions - 72% of which comes from roads - misunderstandings in the relative efficacy of pro-environmental behaviours may have significant implications for climate mitigation efforts.


Wrong choices come with a chain of mistaken beliefs. Different approaches to living a more sustainable lifestyle - starting from the basics, like refilling our goods at plastic-free stores, making our skincare from scratch, and composting the kitchen waste- are a great way to show responsibility.  But not being careful about the genuine relative impact can generate more harm than good to the environment. So many times, eco-friendly habits have been accused of being worse for the planet.  This is something we must avoid at all costs.


So how do we make sure our mobility choices are really, truly ethical?   Philosophers and ethicists believe there are actually few steps that can guide conscious decision-making: recognising that some good and some damage can come out of every situation and looking at balancing the two is a good common approach when making ethical decisions, mostly if we try to benefit the community as a whole.

It is evident that when we talk about mobility, we need a life cycle approach to understand vehicle emission interpretation. Nowadays, regulations fully concentrate on tailpipe emissions; redirecting the focus to the other side of this narrative will be beneficial. To get the complete narrative, it's critical to evaluate the entire life cycle from material manufacturing to end-of-life clearance. Otherwise, we risk moving our attention towards trying to obtain fuel economy at whatever cost - and the environmental price of growing production emissions is high. The rate of emissions reductions has slowed - the more people become mobile, the more CO2 emissions from transport will rise.

We don't have time to discover that it's not always “somebody else’s problem”, instead of using the technology we have at our disposal to help adequately understand the problem and undertake corrective action. We can’t turn information into "blind spots" as if we had a virtual cloaking device, like in Douglas Adams’ most famous book. And there is no point in doing something just because it 'sounds' good. While we wait for new technological life-changing discoveries, our efforts will have to be supported by a numerical impact to make a real difference towards a better future in this world. And that starts today.

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Silvia Iacovcich 14/04/22