‘Industrial Ecology’ Goes Mainstream

A key to the success of the Yale-based Journal of Industrial Ecology (JIE) is its accessibility to a broad range of audiences. 

We caught up with editor-in-chief Reid Lifset to discuss a pair of recent 
JIE papers that attracted significant global attention. One of the papers, on the distribution of video games, triggered some surprising responses — including some YouTube videos that explained the findings to the gaming community. The other, which explored the environmental advantages of electric vehicles, prompted a range of reactions and analysis from across the world — and across the political spectrum.

“Being relevant and being taken seriously requires not only good analysis and clear analysis,” Lifset said, “but also a thick skin.”

Q: The typical audience for the Journal of Industrial Ecology is the global research community. But the nature of the Internet is that there is always the potential for reaching a far broader audience. Which happened for a couple of recent articles.

REID LIFSET: Exactly. The first was a paper about the distribution of video games. It asked whether climate change impacts are lower if we distribute games through physical means — by Blu-ray discs — or by distributing them on the Internet. The expectation was that, of course, the lower impact would result from downloading via the Internet because there wouldn’t be a need to manufacture and transport the discs. But it turns out that that’s not the case. Because there’s a great deal of infrastructure supporting the web — the servers, the backbones, and related equipment — and the Internet consumes energy. The conclusion is that the carbon footprint is less when using a Blu-ray disc.
After the Journal published the paper it caught the attention of people in the gaming community. And since this was counter to their intuitions as well, they read the article. Which is actually pretty unusual, because most people usually form their opinions online by reading the headlines and not reading the text. What was especially striking is that they not only read it and discussed it online. They went so far as to create YouTube videos in which they described the findings to their brethren in the gaming community, walking them through assumptions, and giving their opinions on the model that was used. There were actually four different YouTube videos made, including one in Portuguese from Brazil.

Q: What did they think of the paper?

LIFSET: Some were skeptical. Some of the commenters really grasped the underlying technical analysis. But some of them didn’t, which was kind of sobering to me. Researchers often figure that the reason people don’t “get it” is because people don’t bother to read the real content. But in many cases these guys did, and they still didn’t quite understand how the analysis was conducted. So we got varied reactions.

Q: Did you find it encouraging that these gamers not only discovered the studies but took the time to share their thoughts on the findings and whether the industry should change?

LIFSET: Yes, I found it very encouraging. But I think the real impact was how this challenged peoples’ conventional wisdom and their intuition. I think that many of the gamers thought that video distribution was just moving bits around the Internet: They thought, “It’s low-impact, so I’m cool.” Instead, what they discovered was, “Oh, it doesn’t quite work the way I thought it worked. Maybe life is a little more complicated.” I don’t think they’ll stop gaming, but I think they’ll scratch their heads a bit more when they’re faced with choices.

Q: Is that because the files are getting so much larger because the games are getting so much more complex?

LIFSET: Yes, that’s part of it. But it’s a more complicated than that. It turns out that there is a step function: It’s better to use downloading for smaller games, but it’s better to use a  disc for games that are larger than a certain size. And if the game is especially large, Internet distribution becomes preferable again. That has to do with the fact that the discs have a finite amount of capacity, so when the game is beyond the size of the disc more than one disc is needed... But right now most of the games fall into the category of “it’s better to distribute using Blu-ray discs.”
Now this is a moving target because the Internet is always changing, and the technology undergirding the Internet is always changing... But it also speaks to a much larger discussion. A decade or so ago, people started talking about how replacing atoms with bits — dematerializing, doing things virtually — was going to be better for the environment. But then a whole scientific literature began looking deeply at this: if you download a newspaper or read it online, what are the environmental impacts? What are the implications if you read your magazines that way? And what are the impacts if you use e-grocery services? The upshot was, “well, it depends.” And this is yet another instance of, “it depends.”

Q: Another recent JIE paper capturing a lot of attention raised questions about the environmental advantages of electric vehicles. What were the major findings?

LIFSET: The authors found that the impact of manufacturing electric vehicles [EVs] were larger than indicated by previous research and therefore the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from EVs were also larger. (By life cycle, I mean including production, use and disposal.) This in turn meant that, in the comparison with conventional vehicles regarding greenhouse gas emissions, the relative merits of EVs were more sensitive to the carbon-intensity of the source of electricity used to power them. Put more simplistically, the analysis showed that EVs were more likely to encounter more situations where they were not environmentally preferable to conventional vehicles than had been assumed. A particular strength of the paper was the extensive effort by the authors to be transparent in their assumptions and to make their data accessible. In fact, this was a significant contribution of the article because much of the previous work on EVs relied on proprietary data.  

Q: What was the response to the paper?

LIFSET: The article received extensive and high profile coverage from the Guardian newspaper in the UK and the BBC. The stories from the Guardian and the BBC were picked up by other news sources worldwide and for the month of October, it was downloaded more than any other article from a journal published by Wiley. Much of the first round of news coverage largely repeated the description and discussion from the Guardian and the BBC. This was fortunate because those news stories were thoughtful and largely devoid of sensationalism (with the possible exception of the title of the BBC news story— “Electric cars ‘pose environmental threat’”). Subsequent news coverage ranged from right wing U.S. outlets crowing about the debunking of an environmental icon to local TV news stories to headlines in Israeli newspapers. At the same time, EV specialists began to take notice. In some cases, governments with policies promoting EVs asked researchers to assess the article. In other cases, automotive engineers drilled down into the assumptions. In still others, EV enthusiasts rallied to the defense of their technology.  

Ironically, but not surprisingly, the message drawn by many news outlets was that research showed EVs to be bad for reasons well-known in the research community — because of the dirtiness of some sources of electricity. The publicity generally did not acknowledge that what was new was the re-estimate of production-phase impacts of EVs and the transparency of the analysis.

Q: With all this publicity, what happened?

LIFSET: The results were mixed. The attention of the EV cognoscenti revealed some gaps and flaws in the analysis. In particular, the estimates of the mass of some components related to the electric motor were overstated. The authors engaged in extended discussions with the specialists drawn to their article. A correction was published. The upshot is that the conclusions of the paper did not change substantially. Most of the rankings of environmental impacts stayed the same though the performance of EVs improved modestly. In this respect, the process worked as it should. An interesting and thoughtful analysis was published, relying on transparent and accessible data. Critics were engaged and the analysis was improved. Scientific publishing as it should be...
In a different respect, the process was less happy. Some critics, especially among the EV enthusiasts, attacked the work and attributed the conclusions to bias among the authors — most of whom were from Norway — arising from Norway’s role as an oil producer. The openness of the authors about the details of their analysis mitigated some of the vituperation, but alas not all of that.

Q: So what conclusion do you draw from this experience?

LIFSET: Well the first one is that being policy relevant is a complicated and difficult task. The second is that being relevant and being taken seriously requires not only good analysis, clear communication, but also a thick skin.-->
– Kevin Dennehy    kevin.dennehy@yale.edu    203 436-4842
PUBLISHED: September 14, 2015
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.