The Strategist

When innovation brings more problems than it solves

10/07/2020 - 10:30

Innovations allow for fantastic advances in environmental protection, but there are limits that are sometimes ignored. That is why we cannot always be sure when companies claim to be saving the planet, and sometimes there are hidden problems that outweigh the benefits.

Almost every single venture aiming to improve ecological impact is confined by the constraints of capitalism. Information about a product is therefore geared towards sales potential: making money has to be a priority. Objectively laying out the details inevitably becomes a secondary matter, which is why you have to look carefully at what people are selling.

Electric Cars

Electric vehicles are likely to be one of the big ones. The move, away from internal combustion engines to electric battery-powered numbers, on the surface makes sense for the environment: no more fossil fuels; no more noxious gases, and so on. However, theory does not always reflect reality.

Whether you power your car through a combustion engine, or you charge from the power grid, what matters most is how the energy was generated. In many countries in Europe, charging your e-vehicle might mean burning coal, natural gas, or other fossil fuels in a power station. The promise of sustainable E-vehicles is intrinsically tied to local power generation infrastructure.

In many countries power generation is simply not green enough. It is argued, for instance, that Poland is fundamentally incapable of meeting the European Union’s 2050 Green Deal carbon emissions target. Therefore, the notion that changing the countries vehicles to electric would solve anything clearly misses the point.

Equally, no matter the country, the carbon-equivalent cost, and the financial cost, of overhauling the energy distribution network is also a critical concern for E-vehicles. This is a factor not always taken into consideration by those promoting the green revolution of transport. It is only fair to acknowledge that the technology in question is very much a work in progress, but it is equally important not to allow sales spin to mislead people.

Manufacturing the vehicle is a carbon-intensive endeavour. Taking the off-the-shelf E-product to task on this immediately dispels any ideas that there are advantages for the environment at all. The cost to the planet of the rare metals used in the car alone is a big issue.

“Just to build each car battery — weighing upwards of 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) in size for sport-utility vehicles — would emit up to 74% more C02 than producing an efficient conventional car if it's made in a factory powered by fossil fuels in a place like Germany,” according to Munich-based automotive consultancy, Berylls Strategy Advisors.

As it stands, E-vehicles are not yet comparable to their fuel-guzzling ancestors. Range is clearly an issue. It is also important to understand that most E-vehicle lithium batteries only have a warranty of around 100,000km. This is a critical point, because a number of experts conclude that for the E-vehicle to live up to the manufacturers’ hype, they need to possess a life-time mileage potential of more like 700,000km. If you replace your E-battery three times for the same car it certainly takes the shine out of claims of climate protection.

Plastic banknotes

A number of banks around the world have started printing on polymer paper, that is to say, on plastic. They have done this, counterintuitively, to reduce the carbon footprint of their national currencies. Some people in the industry allege that plastic banknotes have longer lifespans and that this means they are better for the environment.

There are, however, countless cases where they have in fact not been particularly durable, resulting in short lifespans for notes and, therefore, far higher relative carbon costs for printing. Just this year the central bank of the UK was called out by the BBC for the sheer volume of plastic notes worn by use and rendered no longer usable.

There is significant ongoing debate - as to how bad for the environment plastic banknotes are, but what is clear is that reports by some banks suggesting that there are large benefits for the environment have been openly contested by others.

Most crucially, the end-of-life carbon cost of plastic banknotes is an obvious area of concern, as it has become increasingly apparent that, despite lofty ambitions, very little plastic is genuinely recycled. As they are a made from a natural, renewable material, cotton-fibre traditional banknotes breakdown over time, making their end-of-life carbon costs very low. Unfortunately, a changeover to plastic banknotes could see vast quantities of retired notes ending up in landfill, or worse, being burned.

Reusable cups

One trend you will have noticed over the past half decade is reusable coffee cups. The idea, as you know, is to prevent the mountain of discarded paper cups from continuing unabated in the bins in towns and cities. However, it is crucial that the reusable cup, is a recyclable one too. Unfortunately, many are not.

Even for the recyclable ones — you might notice a trend here — they are only environmental beneficial after plenty of use. It takes between 20 and 100 uses for a reusable cup to offset its higher greenhouse gas emissions compared to a disposable one.
Once you factor in the human element, things start to look problematic. Many people simply do not use their disposable cups regularly enough to warrant advantages.

“The unavoidable truth is that it simply isn’t convenient for people on the run to remember their cup, carry it around and wash it out between uses,” writes Caroline Wood, a PhD researcher in food security.

We have not yet outgrown our tendency to throw things out or not use them enough to justify the commitment of resources. As such, a lot of the things that we are told about environmentally friendly products are not actually true. Furthermore, the companies producing them probably know that compliance is a big problem, one that undermines a lot of what they are doing — yet they continue producing them because, sadly, it makes them money.