I was asked by Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino give a talk to the residents of the Low Carbon Design Institute about using Life Cycle Assessment in design. It ended up being a bit of a polemic about why I don’t think we can really do ‘Low Carbon Design’ with any confidence and why I think, instead of pretending we can do it, we should get behind Carbon Tax.
Trying to make a ‘sustainable’ bench
As a teenager in the late 1990s I had a New Scientist subscription, so I entered adulthood convinced Climate Change was by far the most important issue facing the world and determined to do something about it. I avoided flying most of the time I was a student and when I graduated I really wanted to do sustainable design.
This bench (for Furnitubes) was one of the first design projects I worked on after graduation and it seemed like a great opportunity to try and make sustainability improvements, since it was designed to meet a specification issued by Transport for London (to be used on their road network) and there was something called ‘The Mayor of London’s Green Procurement Code’ which was supposed to encourage the purchase of more sustainable products.
The bench is a very simple item by product design standards, it basically has two components, some standards (which form the frame), which in this case were made out of cast iron and some slats, where we had several different options to choose from. I thought we would be able to use the rubric from the green procurement code to make the selection, but as it only contained a series of check boxes based on narrative arguments it didn’t really help. It was possible to make pro and anti sustainability narrative arguments about each of the options.
There seemed to be no objective, quantitate way to make the decision. I realised also that any quantitate analysis we did do would also be heavily dependent on how big the batch of benches we made (due to the emissions generated by moving the parts around) and also on how long long the bench was actually in use for (relative to it’s maximum life span, which would be different depending on the slat materials used).
I also realised how easy a selection process based on narrative arguments was to game, when I met someone, who was selling benches which had frames made from post-consumer recycled aluminium, and was able to get a better score than we were with cast iron. Cast Iron should be a much better choice because it is also almost all recycled (from car parts and other sources of ‘scrap’) and has been for decades (which means that no one talks about it), but the ‘opportunity cost’ in terms of emissions for Aluminium is higher because Aluminium is much more scarce (requiring much more energy to produce) and, if used in items that are in motion, able to mitigate emissions due to it’s lower weight to strength ratio.
Looking at a 10% resource use future (in 2008)
I left Furnitubes after a couple of years to do a masters in Industrial Design Engineering at the RCA. Whilst I was there I worked with Ed Murfitt and Chris Holden on a graduating group project we called ‘The Scarcity Project’. We started the project looking at the kind of resource budgets that we would need to live on if we were to share the emissions we can ‘safely’ make to avoid catastrophic climate change equally amongst all the people on the earth.
By our calculations then these budgets were about 10% of what Western Europeans in 2008 (when we did the project) were consuming. We felt like ‘look for the 90% reduction and then work back to now’ was a more helpful approach than the then mainstream ‘work out how to make a 10% reduction‘. We did some scenario planning, looking at possible futures where people in the developed world lives on 10% of their current resource budgets, and identified that the most critical uncertainties about what this would look like were:
- The extent to which we developed new technologies the support consumption using fewer resources (especially fossil fuel ones)
- The extent to which governments were able to coordinate action to control CO2 emissions (as Climate Change is a collective action problem this is necessary if we are expecting to have to reduce living standards in any way and for this to be either fair or effective)
Plotting these outcomes of these uncertainties against one another and pushing each combination to the it’s extreme, lead us to these four scenarios for the future where we use 10% of the resources as in 2008, in 2040.
This is the scenario where there isn’t much meaningful coordinated action from governments but we end up dramatically reducing our resource use because so many new technologies emerge that we are able to more or less continue as we have been in market economies, except with less environmentally damaging ways of doing things, like clean energy and fuels, more efficient buildings and circular resource loops (+ people dress like in the future in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey).
In this scenario we don’t develop many new technologies, but there is so much coordinated action by global governments that we all end up with resource/CO2 budgets/rations, representing our ‘fair share’ of resources. Market economies move towards central planning and more services are provided communally.
In this scenario there is no coordinated governmental action or big technology breakthroughs but people voluntarily decide to abandon current consumption patterns as part of a shift in values towards living closer to and caring more about nature. Electricity and technical materials are reserved for communications and healthcare systems, with many other energy uses disappearing or moving off grid.
In this scenario there is no coordinated governmental action or big technology breakthroughs and resource use and CO2 emissions continue to rise until nature itself imposes limits on consumption as food systems collapse and places become uninhabitable. Many societies are unlikely to survive such a shock and so what resources are available are likely to be subject to intense and violent competition.
Where are we now?
With all scenario planning exercises it is expected that the actual future will fall somewhere between the different scenarios and will be likely to incorporate elements from several of them. Looking back at them after 13 years it feels like that has indeed happened.
In terms of the speed and impact of climate change it feels like we have moved more quickly towards the Crash today than we had expected back in 2008.
BUT technology has also moved quicker (renewables and batteries are much better and far cheaper than they were, electrification is moving faster than we thought it would, lots of work is happening on circularity and even fusion looks like it’s getting closer).
AND whilst global action had a major set back in 2009 it got onto life support in 2015 and hopefully will have a good 2021.
The movements around value shift have been interesting. We were not expecting the move from tangible goods to intangible digital ones to happen as quickly as it has (maybe this is Technofix and not Value Shift) but it is interesting how much ‘value’ people are prepared to put into digital-only things (for example things that only exist in big online games, or apps themselves). Some actions taken to ‘protect nature’, which could be viewed as motivated by value shift have been counterproductive from a CO2 perspective, for example Germany’s abandonment of nuclear power.
Budgets not heuristics
Anyway I’ve used the scenarios, and what we learned about resource budgets on the project to inform much of my work since. I ended up with this crude framework for doing design that was likely to fit in the more positive scenarios.
But it’s important to emphasise that these are just rules of thumb (heuristics) and the Climate Emergency doesn’t really care about them. It cares about CO2 emissions, which a cold quantitate question. But when we are talking about ‘sustainable’ or ‘low carbon’ design we are almost always talking about rules of thumb and not numbers.
Designers love assumptions
I think this is incredibly important because, when we think we can get away with it we designers love making assumptions and the earth can’t speak for itself.
How do I know designers love making assumptions? I’m very interested in accessibility and assistive technology and I spend a lot of time talking to disabled people about both things. I often hear views like the one expressed very eloquently in this blog post by Jessica Thom:
Disabled people are *right there* and yet ‘socially minded’ designers are still happy to completely ignore them, and their actual needs, and do design based on the designer’s own, largely incorrect, assumptions about them. If this happens to disabled people (most of whom can speak and are relatively easy to engage with), so often that they see it as the majority of assistive tech design that they get to hear about, you can imagine the liberties designers would be able to take with the earth’s needs.
Much of what is branded ‘sustainable design’ in the media fails according to my rule of thumb above. Three out of the five designs spotlighted in this Guardian article on the ‘circular economy’ were ‘recycling’ items by combining them with thermosetting resins, which have a very high resource footprint (probably higher than the materials they are ‘saving’) and represents ‘downcycling’ as it precludes further recycling (and makes both landfill and waste-to-energy incineration more dangerous, difficult and environmentally damaging). But the argument ‘my rules of thumb are better than yours’ is never going to be a great one. Luckily there is a way to look at these questions objectively. It is called…
Life Cycle Assessment
LCA works very well for relatively simple products where the inputs can be easily kept track of and their environmental (especially CO2) impact can be easily quantified. A former client of mine, Marshalls, commissioned LCAs on all their paving products and have a really easy to use ‘Carbon Calculator’ on their website. You can select which products you are thinking of using, put in the quantities and it will tell you the embedded CO2 for each one. Here’s their data for concrete blister paving and Yorkstone flags.
This approach works well in the construction industry because the vast majority of the CO2 emitted by buildings are either embodied in a relatively small number of bulk materials, whose embodied CO2 can be easily worked out, as Marshalls have above, or arise from electricity, gas (and other fuels) consumed by the building which again can easily be measured (and predicted fairly accurately ahead of construction). Despite all this information being available, and relatively easy to work out it seems many architects still don’t actually use it when they design buildings (and their clients don’t seem to ask them to).
For the London 2012 Olympics two buildings were constructed with roughly equivalent roof spans but one used 3 times as much steel as the other one. The embodied CO2 in that ‘extra’ steel is equivalent to the annual emissions from heating 1,200 UK homes.
LCA for a consumer product
So maybe it’s not used as much as it should be but LCAs in the construction industry seem straightforward to do and useful in terms of working out how to do low carbon design. When we try to apply LCA to more complicated consumer products things get a bit more difficult. I tried it for the first product I brought to market myself.
This is The Crafty Robot. I designed it based on my rules of thumb. It’s a moving toy robot and the idea was that to make the high embodied resource part – the circuit board with the motor on it (Fizzbit) – re-usable and the rest of it from a low embodied resource, easily recycled material (card). I also tried to design out batteries by powering it using a super-capacitor and making that charged using a USB port (so we wouldn’t need to make a charger as everyone would already have something they could use).
I ran a LCA, compared to a popular battery operated plastic bug toy that moves around with using the same kind of vibration motor. I tore down both products, weighed all the components and used a proprietary, subscription-based LCA tool to get embodied CO2 values for all of them. Before I did the LCA I expected that my design would easily come out in top.
The truth was that it did come out on top if I assumed that the two of the circuit boards were re-used between five cardboard robots and that they were played with for 10 minutes every day for a year. If I made a lower assumption about how often they were used however, the bug toy would have come out on top because the toy itself had a much lower embodied CO2 than the Fizzbit (and you had to use up a lot of batteries to compensate for that).
The reason for this was that in order to avoid using ‘plastic’ and make the Fizzbit as easy as possible to recycle I had created the structure of the product from the Printed Circuit Board (PCB). To make it fit in USB ports had also necessitated using a thicker circuit board than standard. The material circuit boards are made of, FR4, is made by combining glass fibres with epoxy resin, a similar material to what is described as ‘binding agent’ and ‘eco resin’ in the Guardian article on ‘circular economy’. Epoxy resin has a much higher embedded CO2 than the polypropylene that the bug toy is mainly made from and that was the Fizzbit ended up with a higher embodied CO2.
As well as the sensitivity to assumptions about how consumers will use the product another a limitation I discovered in performing the LCA was that, even using a pay-to-use platform, data about specific components and materials, such as the super-capacitor that serves as the energy store on the Fizzbit and the Thermoplastic Elastomer that makes up the bug toy’s legs were not available so these had to be calculated based on the most similar available values (eg ‘PCB components’ and polyurethane).
The next product I brought to market myself was a much more complicated cardboard robot. The Smartibot (2018), which tries to apply the ‘low embodied resource cardboard + reusable high embedded resource parts’ ethos of The Crafty Robot to a proper programmable, app-connected robot.
As with its predecessor the Smartibot meets most of my rules of thumb. We designed it so the circuit board could be re-used to build robots that are much more complex than the ones in the kit, and set it up so it could easily be hacked into existing toys. However, as with the Fizzbit, its actual impact depends on how many of the consumers actually use it like that (so having a Smartibot prevents them from buying new toys that contain similar components).
I’ve created expansion packs that include extra cardboard parts to build new robots by re-using the electronics and motors. Also from time to time people send me images and videos where they have done these things. My favourite is this one sent by a man who used his Smartibot to reanimate a toy tank which has stopped working because the company that made it had gone out of business and the app had disappeared.
The problem is I have no idea how common this use pattern is and how many Smartibots just end up on shelves with new toys (containing the same components) being purchased by their owners.
On the other side of the ledger it’s really difficult to run a proper LCA on a product like the Smartibot which has 36 different components (mostly each from a different manufacturer) just on the circuit board. As a small company I don’t have any leverage over my suppliers so I can’t ask them to supply the data for the LCA, and even if I could I have no way to know if they are telling the truth. Manufacturing in China (where we make Smartibots) is a pretty low-trust undertaking and suppliers will often take liberties if they think they can (as we found out when a supplier shipped us half a batch of battery boxes with the wrong connector on as they had run out of the correct ones).
LCAs for complex electronic products
This is a big bit of work though. Dell commissioned a team of consultants to make it and it runs to 67 pages. And even a large well-resourced company like Dell isn’t doing these as standard for all of their products. We are however seeing more and more marketing claims made based on rules of thumb arguments, like this one from Apple.
So making design decisions based on LCA is very challenging, but the three scenarios that avoid complete ecological collapse require us to actually reduce the CO2 embodied in the things we consume, and most of our rules of thumb aren’t reliable ways to do this (apart from consuming fewer animal products, flying less and living somewhere you don’t need to drive to work).
Climate change is a collective action problem
At this point it is also worth acknowledging that climate change is a collective action problem, so the scope for individual action to help is limited. I could make sacrifices to control my CO2 footprint but unless most other people in the world do it as well climate change still happens. The scenarios suggest forms that this collective action could take.
In Technofix there isn’t much sacrifice in terms of lifestyles because the action has taken the form of upgrading all the technology (possibly spurred on by globally agreed incentives for low carbon investment). In Value Shift the action has been taken by individuals voluntarily based on a new ethical paradigm. In Global Governance the action takes the form of globally agreed carbon budgets divided up amongst the population into rations and turned into goods and services by largely planned economies.
All of these require us to know how much CO2 is embodied in what we consume. One way to do this with confidence is to build a second accounting system for carbon that runs in parallel with the accounting system we already have for money. So everything ends up with a money price and a carbon price. SAP are actually building this and I’m sure many people in accountancy and business services see this as a huge opportunity for the world to buy many more of their services.
At this point though it is worth remembering where most of the CO2 emissions that are causing climate change come from. This is a slight simplification, since land use (especially deforestation) has huge impact (though it is easy to keep track of and attribute with satellite images), but most CO2 emissions are caused by us digging up fossil fuels and burning them, all over the world, to accomplish all kinds of things (and consequently are difficult to keep track of).
Coming back to the Smartibot, there are probably thousands of individual processes that produce CO2 in the supply chain, if it was even possible to walk back through it and identify each one. Most complex consumer products are the products of supply chains like this. But there is a very small number of actual sources of that CO2. They are mostly coal, oil and natural gas.
So, for it to work, our carbon accounting system needs to keep track of all the companies that are emitting CO2 (and make sure they aren’t lying, even though there is nothing to inventory and CO2 is really easy to get off your premises as it just floats away into the atmosphere). There are about 45 thousand companies listed on stock exchanges globally and it is estimated that there are 125 million companies in total.
BUT on the source side it is much simpler. Just 100 companies have been responsible for 70% of CO2 and Methane emissions since the 1980s.
So we could try to deploy our accounting and auditing system to 125 million companies, so we can be sure we are buying ‘low carbon design’
OR we could build the embodied carbon emissions of products directly into the price by taxing fossil fuels, and we get 70% of emissions once we have just 100 companies paying. From that point on, we just need one accounting system, the one we already have for money, and we don’t need to try and do ‘low carbon design’ as everyone starts doing it, by doing what they have always done, trying to buy/make things cheaper. That’s why…
An internationally applied carbon tax at source (that starts off low but increases by a predictable amount every year) may seem like something that could never happen, but the G7 have just agreed a deal on harmonising corporation tax which has all most of the same characteristics and proved to be surprisingly straightforward to agree once everyone started trying. So I think this is something we could do easily if there was the political will.
As designers we have the power to create narratives around the products we make. We are much better at this than either engineers or scientists. As this polling shows a narrative that has taken hold amongst British people that motivates them to act around recycling and materials use but not on much more impactful areas like meat consumption and leaves them unwilling to see climate change addressed through taxation. To what extent is design that claims to be ‘sustainable’ or ‘low carbon’, without talking quantitively about carbon emissions, complicit in maintaining these narratives?