These days the media is full of images that reveal our environmental failures. It’s totally understandable, because temperatures are rising noticeably. We are experiencing heat waves, droughts and flooding. Plastic patches in our oceans cause damage at unprecedented levels. It’s obvious we’re facing severe problems.  

Young people—those who will be hardest hit—are responding with Fridays for Future demonstrations with the hope of changing our political direction. A lot of small initiatives are driving change, and industry is trying to find middle ground between business risks and drastic transformations. But often, they continue to cling to business as usual.  

Having studied ecology and having done life cycle assessment for almost 12 years now, I am often asked why we, as sustainability consultants, pay attention to so many environmental impacts when it is so obvious that carbon emissions—and the global warming they cause—pose the greatest threat to life on the planet.  

The answer is simple: An integrated, holistic approach that considers various environmental impacts is critical, if you want to avoid shifting burdens from one environmental impact to another (→ "7 Tips for Responsible Life Cycle Assessment Practice") 

But, okay, I also get the point about carbon emissions. I’ll even play devil’s advocate for a moment. In light of the dangers of climate change, shouldn’t we disregard the risks of shifting burdens for the moment, accepting other—perhaps more regional—impacts, until we’ve tackled the greenhouse gas emissions problem?

 

I am often asked why we pay attention to so many environmental impacts when it is so obvious that carbon emissions pose the greatest threat to life on the planet.

To answer that question, we need to examine the other impacts more closely to identify what dangers they pose and what real harm they represent.  

1. Water  

Let’s start with an obvious one—the water footprint. A water footprint can tell you something about water scarcity and blue water consumption, the latter being the water footprint most frequently calculated together with other impacts. But how important is blue water consumption really? You could make the claim that it’s only important regionally, not globally. But I disagree.  

Let’s just take Europe. The European Commission estimated that at least 11% of Europe's population and 17% of its territory have been affected by water scarcity to date, putting the total cost of droughts in Europe over the past 30 years at €100 billion. The 2003 drought alone cost over €13 billion, affecting about 20 European countries. [1] Almeria, Spain, the main vegetable producer for Europe, is one example of a region that was seriously affected, leading to repercussions for the rest of Europe.  

In India, as within Europe, water scarcity is the result of the industry using a huge amount of ground water to produce cotton and vegetables. [2] If then boiling-hot summers and too little rainfall add to the problem, water scarcity affects cities and the economy.  

With these two examples, you can already detect a dynamic between global warming, water consumption and the economy.  

2. Eutrophication  

Eutrophication describes how a body of water becomes enriched with minerals and nutrients, causing excessive growth of algae. Eutrophication is one of the indicators assessed in life cycle assessment. It was a critical topic in the 1970s, when European lakes and rivers “fell sick” and even “died” temporarily. Luckily, the solution to eutrophication is “relatively” easy. You prevent nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, from entering the waterbody by restricting fertilization and providing waste water treatment. (Water Framework Directive 2000/60/EC)  

Europe indeed improved the quality of its waterways after the 1970s, and many people thought the problem was under control, so the public all but forgot about it. [3] But Europe still has severe water eutrophication problems in multiple locations, especially in ground water, even in places like Germany, which is considered one of the forerunners in sustainability practices. [4]

To give another example: In the Black Sea, we observe high nutrient levels that may devastate the entire sea. Despite the “regional” character of this problem, eutrophication will affect a large number of people and the economies in bordering countries.  

3. Biodiversity Loss  

I am skipping a few important environmental impacts to get to this one. If we think about all possible impacts in relation to planetary boundaries, the area defined as the safe operating space for humanity, [5] we realize we are already in the zone of high risk for three impacts: the climate, the nitrogen cycle and biodiversity loss.  

Almost daily we read in the news that yet another species is at risk of losing its habitat, that its very existence is becoming endangered. But biodiversity also includes the “soil biota,” tremendous amounts of bacteria and other life forms which we rarely think about and which play an important role in our ecosystems. Losing these species one by one is like losing screws in a car driving at high speed. We don’t notice it for a while, but once we reach a certain threshold of loss, the car will crash. While climate change is obviously related to our energy consumption and nitrogen is mostly related to our agricultural systems, biodiversity is harder to grasp.

 

We only have one planet, and its resources are limited. We are in urgent need of assessing our actions holistically as a single, functioning ecosystem with humanity as an integral part.

From an ecological point of view, it’s a combination of various impacts that is important here. It includes water scarcity for water ecosystems; eutrophication of soil, river, and sea habitats; acidification of our land systems; land use change and many others.  

I argue that we can’t afford to be swept up by what the mainstream media is telling us to focus on (i.e., global warming and plastic waste). We only have one planet, and its resources are limited. We are in urgent need of assessing our actions holistically as a single, functioning ecosystem with humanity as an integral part.  

Which brings me back to beginning of this discussion. Does it really make sense to concentrate on only one impact? Clearly not. It’s the combination of all impacts that tells us whether we are shifting burdens or not in our sustainability efforts. It is a risk to your business—and, in the end, to humanity—to ignore or remain ignorant of the “other” impact categories. If you truly want to be more sustainable, don’t concentrate only on one impact. Go for them all.

One more thought: This article focuses on the ecological side of sustainability. I am aware that ecological aspects comprise just one of three major “columns” of sustainability. We have to take all of them into account.


How to Navigate the Carbon Offsetting Jungle

References:

[1] https://ec.europa.eu/environment/water/quantity/pdf/non-paper.pdf
[2] https://ec.europa.eu/environment/water/quantity/scarcity_en.htm
[3] https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/nitrat-grundwasser-deutschland-103.html
[4] https://www.nabu.de/natur-und-landschaft/fluesse/wrrl.html
[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planetary_boundaries