Trying to figure out carbon footprints for manufactured products is absurd. Let’s take an extremely simple example. It must be easy to work out how much carbon it would take to produce and sell something as simple as a woodscrew, right?
Take a look at my attempt below and tell me if I’ve put anything in which is wrong (not if I’ve missed anything – I know I have). My aim here is to show how impossibly complex a full analysis would be, not even to try attempt a full analysis. I also want to show that an incomplete analysis doesn’t even give you a rough lower bound – it could even be too high if you don’t take everything into account (although it’s not likely to be).
Each item is a clear contributor of CO2 caused by the manufacture and/or sale of the screw. A complete analysis would have to calculate the fraction of the total lifetime CO2 contribution of each item which contributes to the screw manufacture and sale.
**??**>> indicates a complexity rat-hole which would need to be expanded out creating further minblowingly complex analysis.
* Dig iron ore out of the ground * The digger manufacture including every nut and bolt **??**>> * The digger fuel used * Digging out the digger fuel from the ground * Oil rig - manufacture, installation, running **??**>> * Transporting fuel to the digger **??**>> * The driver's work - how much less carbon would he/she use if not working? **??**>> * Transport of iron ore to the smelting works **??**>> * Smelt the iron * Collect and add pig iron and carbon (to make steel) **??**>> * Coal used for smelting **??**>> * Machines used to do the smelting. **??**>> * Smelting works employees, the cars they use to get to work etc... **??**>> * Mould and shape the screw * Machines used **??**>> * Employee energy and transport **??**>> * How much steel is wasted and/or reheated * Chrome plating the screw - or however they make them look shiny **??**>> * Package the screw **??**>> * Transport to shop **??**>> * Shop running costs **??**>> * Advertising costs **??**>> * Paper used for advertising **??**>> * Google searches **??**>> .......... ETC.... ETC.....
Hopefully this is enough to make the point that this kind of analysis is absurd. Any other manufactured product I can think of is as complex as this or more. Just think about a resistor – the 4 different colours of paints it has on it and all the ingredients that go into them – not to mention an iPod, an aeroplane or an orange.
What’s the implication? The implication is that all this stuff about carbon footprints of flights, foods and consumer goods is probably utter BULL. It’s not that they don’t have a footprint or in most cases that it is likely to be lower than the estimates. It’s that the estimates are completely loopy and probably too low. A good example is the estimates for train journeys which don’t take into account the building and running of all the railway stations, their lights etc…
Usually – as in the case of an estimate which only takes into account the carbon implied by fuel burned (aircraft journeys, probably), they give you a lower bound, but in the case of the screw, the estimate may even be too high because the resource use is shared in unexpected ways (by all the other products made by the same plant).
There is a simple solution!
Tax carbon at source! Use the common-sense law of continuity – what goes in must come out. Or in this case, what comes out as CO2, must come out (of the earth): no matter what mind-blowingly complex processes it is used in and even if it is used recursively to extract more carbon.
That means – tax oil extraction, coal mining, natural gas extraction and net loss of forest. Then the sums are simple and it’s even easier to police. There’s even no need to know which industries are using the most, because the oil companies will naturally take care of that by passing the costs of the tax on to the buyers.
It would also pass the necessary messages on to consumers since the costs would trickle emergently down into the products which used the most carbon.