The Climate Impacts of Stuff

Most states currently rely on inventories that assess greenhouse gas emissions generated within their own borders, a “snow globe” approach that overlooks consumer goods imported from around the world. (Graphic courtesy of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency)

The vacation promised to be high in enjoyment and low in carbon. Rather than flying somewhere and staying in a hotel, we would sail to a cabin powered by solar electricity. Our only fossil-fuel use would involve a little propane to prepare meals.

In this carbon accounting, though, we had unwittingly cooked the books. Greenhouse gas emissions from our transportation and building use would be minimal, true. But what about the coolers of food and duffels of clothing, not to mention the boat itself?

It’s easy to overlook embodied energy — all the energy that goes into the production, transport and disposal — of the stuff we consume and use on a daily basis. While much of that energy is expended far from Maine, the emissions generated still fuel the planetary climate crisis.

How does one account for the greenhouse gas impact of — say — a tube of sunscreen? It requires analyzing emissions throughout its life cycle, including the mining of mineral ingredients and extraction of fossil fuels used in the plastic container, the transport of raw materials and finished products, the manufacturing process and ultimately either its incineration or landfilling (since such tubes are not typically recycled).

Do those life cycle emissions amount to much? Not for a single tube of sunscreen, but for all that we consume nationally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 42 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions trace back to handling materials through their lifespan. Other estimates put that figure as high as 80 percent. Clearly, we need to better gauge how much consumption is driving global warming.

Beyond that, we need to reassess how much stuff we buy and use, recognizing — as the European Environment Agency has noted — that unsustainable consumption is “the mother of all environmental issues.”

Getting a global view

Maine primarily uses an EPA “state inventory tool” to track greenhouse gas emissions, which has been refined over many years and provides a consistent format with other states and with the national emissions inventory. It’s especially effective for reporting emissions from in-state sources of energy consumption like transportation and buildings, but it assumes the state is an isolated geographic bubble like a snow globe, said Nathan Robbins, climate change program manager at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

The current tool does not include upstream emissions of foods and goods that originate outside state borders, and Maine’s climate action plan, which relied primarily on data from the state inventory tool, overlooks the climate impacts of consumption.

Oversights in emissions accounting can lead to an unjust form of “global burden shifting,” said Cynthia Isenhour, an associate professor of anthropology and climate change at the University of Maine. It’s essential to understand “not just where greenhouse gas emissions come from but why,” she added. “Who benefits from those emissions?”

Americans buy and use tons of stuff manufactured in countries like China and Mexico, Isenhour added, while “saddling them with reducing those emissions.” By conventional measures, the U.S. follows China as the lead emitter of greenhouse gases, but our country is far and away the largest “importer” of carbon dioxide emissions through the stuff we consume – much of it from China. Factoring in those upstream emissions makes our nation’s carbon impact even more outsized.

Following Oregon’s lead

Oregon is alone among states in having worked for more than a decade to assess consumption’s impact on greenhouse gas emissions. The point of that analysis is “not to wag fingers at people,” said David Allaway, a senior policy analyst at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, but to “activate the full suite of tools in the toolbox needed to address this existential crisis.” States not yet calculating consumption’s impacts “are not giving the public or policy makers a complete picture of how their state is contributing to climate change,” he added, and so are “shortchanging the list of possible solutions.”

Oregon’s leadership helped inspire the Northeast Waste Management Officials’ Associations (NEWMOA) and Northeast Recycling Council to propose that their member states pursue consumption-based emissions inventories similar to Oregon’s, working collaboratively with the EPA.

For Maine, that proposal represented a “great synergy,” Robbins said, offering a chance to complement the in-state inventory and begin addressing questions that arose during the climate action plan process about the impact of emissions from consumer goods manufactured elsewhere.

Through a regional pilot launched last fall, participating Northeast states will learn about a family of models EPA has developed to estimate both environmental and economic impacts associated with the production and consumption of goods. Several states, including Maine, expect to complete a consumption-based emissions inventory by the spring of 2023.

It’s too early to predict how Maine might use its new inventory, Robbins indicated, but Terri Goldberg, NEWMOA’s executive director, said “we’re watching closely what is happening in Oregon,” which has already done several updates of its original consumption-based emissions inventory.

Oregon’s inventories have begun shaping policy responses on issues ranging from food rescue to construction materials. Documenting high greenhouse gas emissions from the production of unused food prompted Oregon to commit to reduce food waste 50 percent by 2030. The state has undertaken life cycle assessments of different foods and is shifting its focus — as Maine is — to rescuing and redirecting food early in the production process.

Oregon, which like Maine has adopted an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) law to minimize packaging waste, built into that law incentives for producers to evaluate and disclose life-cycle analyses of their products. Figures for water use and greenhouse gas emissions will provide more reliable indicators of environmental impact than vague terms like “recyclable” or “compostable,” Allaway said.

‘New and exciting possibilities’

Maine’s groundbreaking EPR law will generate substantial revenues, much of which will go to municipalities for expanded recycling. Some funds could go to enhance “Maine’s vibrant and strong reuse economy,” Isenhour noted, helping foster more repair, reuse and waste reduction.

Any challenge to unlimited consumption risks being “seen as a transgression of democracy and capitalistic structure,” Isenhour said, but such a reassessment need not imply sacrifice; “it opens up new and exciting possibilities.” Research done at the University of Maine has found abundant environmental and social benefits linked to the reuse economy.

Journalist J.B. McKinnon reached a similarly hopeful conclusion in his recent book, The Day the World Stops Shopping: How Ending Consumerism Saves the Environment and Ourselves: “evidence suggests that a life in a lower-consuming society really can be better, with less stress, less work… and more time for the people and things that matter most.”

Maybe we had the right vision for that vacation after all… we just need to buy less stuff and travel light.

© Marina Schauffler, 2022. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request