The Carbon Footprint of Capital

We think of capital, the assets we use in production, as heavy: machines, buildings, infrastructure, trucks and railroads. Being composed mostly of cement and steel, we would expect their production to cause a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. In a new paper, published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, we offer a first detailed analysis of the carbon footprint of gross fixed capital formation across countries and sectors. The picture that emerges is interesting because of some small surprises.

First of all, capital is big. Capital formation constitutes about one-quarter of gross global product in monetary terms. It causes about 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Leaving it out is a pretty big oversight.

Second, capital formation varies across countries. The country with the highest capital…

Environmental Impacts of Demand-Side Technologies and Strategies for Carbon Mitigation

Energy efficiency and renewable energy are widely recognized as two of the most effective ways to greatly reduce the threat of climate change. But how much do we know about other environmental impacts of a large-scale deployment of these technologies? What are the benefits (or impacts) from a life-cycle perspective? By how much can the gains from energy efficient technologies be multiplied if greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from electricity production are also reduced?

CFL w vineIn a special issue, Yale’s Journal of Industrial Ecology aims to advance our understanding of environmental and natural resource implications of energy efficiency technologies. This special issue, “Environmental Impacts of Demand-Side Technologies and Strategies for Carbon Mitigation,” was prepared…

Tracking phosphorus in aquaculture: Identifying losses and potential for recycling

Phosphorus (P) scarcity is the subject of
considerable research and debate. P studies, however, have yet to include the aquaculture and fisheries sectors, thus eliminating the possibility of assessing their relative importance and identifying opportunities for recycling. A recent study looks at flows of phosphorus in fisheries, aquaculture, and agriculture in Norway.
Results indicate that, contrary to most other countries where agriculture dominates, in Norway, aquaculture and agriculture drive P consumption and losses. This suggests that there are opportunities P recycling across sectors that could help address the mineral P demands of agriculture.

The research also illustrates the value of material flow analysis and systems perspectives that are at the heart of industrial ecology.  See the article in Yale F&ES’s Journal of Industrial Ecology at

Call for Papers: Exploring the Circular Economy

Is industrial ecology the science of the circular economy?

In “Strategies for Manufacturing,” the seminal article in 1989 that is often identified as marking the beginning of industrial ecology as a research field, Robert Frosch and Nicholas Gallopolous (1989) analogized industrial ecosystems to biological ecosystems.  The set of ideas based on an ecological analogy in varying degrees and forms has been examined, elaborated and increasingly adopted in many guises.  Most recently, the circular economy has captured the imagination of many in the environmental world. China enacted a law for the promotion of the circular economy in 2008, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has played a pivotal role in engaging the business community, and the European Union is formulating a circular economy strategy as a socio-economically promising means to achieve resource…

Commitment, Distraction or Green Fluff? Debating Science-based Corporate Carbon Targets

The environmental movement has always been plagued by the half-a-loaf problem. Is it better to accept a partial solution to an environmental threat with the possibility that the solution will be the sum total of what is achieved? Or should the partial serving be rejected with the opposite possibility that no progress will be made?

This conundrum plays out in a debate in the Journal of Industrial Ecology over science-based carbon targets for business. In “Science-Based Carbon Targets for the Corporate World: The Ultimate Sustainability Commitment, or a Costly Distraction?” two leading voices on corporate sustainability take aim at emerging calls for a move away from arbitrary goals for corporate reduction of greenhouse gases (GHGs). In this approach, companies cut their emissions using targets defined based on a global…