Category Archives: Natural resources

Window dressing vs reduced business risks and impacts – which to choose?

Companies have impacts – on people, on the environment – some positive, some negative. Sometimes the negative impacts become very obvious and very negative – for example when a textile factory in Bangladesh collapses. Sometimes the impacts are less visible, displacement of people from their land, discharge of toxic chemicals, or exploitation of fossil fuels.

There are many way of addressing these impacts, including direct legislation, standards & labelling. One approach that sounds promising at first sight – but is yet to really deliver – is company reporting: Continue reading

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We need to change – but to what? and how fast?

“cognitive dissonance: the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change.”

We are living in a time of cognitive dissonance – on the one hand, many people (particularly in business) now realise that the economy can’t go on the way it is – with increasing climate changing emissions, pressure on resources and biodiversity – while at the same time taking the view that it’s not politically practical to do anything about it. Continue reading

Measuring to manage: Commission launches consultation on measuring our use of resources

Ever thought it was strange that we measure – and try to reduce – our climate changing emissions, yet we don’t do the same with our resource use? In fact, there isn’t even general agreement on how to measure our use of resources.

This could be about to change though, as the European Commission’s Environment department have launched a consultation on “Options for resource efficiency indicators” – it’s available here. This is part of the Commission’s wider focus on resource efficiency, led by Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik.

I warmly welcome this consultation, as we identified this as important issue some years ago, and at Friends of the Earth Europe we’ve been working to solve this problem. The four indicators of resource use that we identified in this work are now proposed by the Commission in this consultation, which is a very positive step:

  • Overall material use – how much material do we use, from wherever in the world it originates
  • Land footprint – how much land we use, again from wherever it comes from in the world (e.g. the land used to grow soy in Paraguay to feed to chickens in Europe)
  • Water footprint – the water used to make products
  • Carbon footprint – the greenhouse gases released.

This is an important step forward, as the resources debate has been dominated by an academic argument between those who want to just measure the tonnes of stuff we use – maybe even just within Europe – and those who want everything to be translated into environmental impact. The former is too narrowly focussed, the latter is probably largely unachievable at an economy-scale, for example:

  • What is the environmental impact of a tonne of wood? Is that wood from a plantation, or rainforest? What species? How much of the forest is left?

We believe that the four indicators above, taken together, give a vital tool to measure and manage our resource use – at product level, company level or at national or EU level. Many companies are already looking at their carbon footprint and water footprint – and identifying substantial reductions in resource use & economic savings. We believe that this approach can assist in making Europe more resource efficient – something that is economically very important in these troubled times.

The proposals in the consultation aren’t perfect – it’s unclear what the Commission proposes to do by when, and whether they will go with the data that is already available (e.g. see this presentation of mine), or delay considering the implications of our resource use until they have gathered ‘perfect’ statistical data.

The Consultation was launched on 26th July & closes on 22nd October – Friends of the Earth Europe will be producing a consultation response towards the end of the consultation period. For more information on our work on resource use, see this page on the Friends of the Earth Europe site.

Land – so important, yet so ignored….

People have been talking about resource use for years – we use too much, we don’t distribute it equitably, things are getting more expensive, running out, etc etc etc.

The thing that puzzles me is that these conversations tend to be about materials – in general, or specific materials (oil, metals, rare earths etc) – and most of the time a key natural resource is ignored – land.

It’s blindingly obvious that land is a limited resource – as Mark Twain said “Buy Land, they’re not making it anymore”. Across the world the pressure on land is increasing – from increasing demand for food (particularly meat & dairy), from the increasing use of biofuel and biomass as an energy source, and from growing urbanisation.

Land is obviously crucial to biodiversity – but it is also intimately  linked to people’s rights, history and incomes. The growing demand for land – combined with financial speculation – is creating a massive increase in land disputes, as companies and governments try to gain control of land.

This is leading to deaths and imprisonments of local people, for instance 17 people were killed in June 2012 during a police-led eviction of peasant farmers in Paraguay. This was followed by the arrest of a local person who was working with Friends of the Earth, though he was later released following international pressure  (see Friends of the Earth International news story)

And yet, land just doesn’t seem to be front of mind when many people talk about resource use. For example, the UK Environment Ministry DEFRA has just launched a consultation on “Guidance for Business on Key Environmental Performance Indicators“. As you might expect, this includes measuring climate emissions, waste, material use, even water – but what about land?

Well, land use change gets a mention in the section on biodiversity, but not beyond this, in spite of the fact that scale of land use is so important as companies make decisions on bio-based materials and feedstocks – or even what to food to serve. Yet measuring impacts on biodiversity is much more difficult than measuring scale of land use.

There is a straightforward way to measure and manage the amount of land required by a company, an economy, or to produce an individual product – it’s called Land Footprint. This is a really straightforward measurement of  the real area of land required, in hectares. It doesn’t tell you everything, but it does work very well as a top-level metric, which facilitates further analysis (e.g. looking at where the land is, why we are using that land etc). If you want to know the land footprint of EU countries, see our report on “Europe’s land import dependency”.

For more about land footprint, see this talk I gave to a conference organised by the European Commission on soil sealing in May 2012.

We’ll be asking DEFRA – and indeed the European Commission – to make sure that future policies on environmental reporting & resource use do include land. We’d welcome the same message coming from other people and organisations too!!