Problems measuring China’s footprint

Are modern diapers or cloth diapers more environmentally friendly? Opponents to modern synthetic diapers used to argue that they waste paper materials while supporters believed cloth diapers waste washing water, also harming the environment. Researchers finally settled the debate using life cycle assessment – modern diapers have a smaller environmental impact than cloth diapers, and so they have become widely used.

In the diaper case, life cycle assessment played an important role. The carbon footprinting and labeling of other goods follows the same idea. It is an environmental impact analysis of a product (or service) from the acquisition of raw materials, through to production, consumption and waste management. It serves to guide future production technologies to have less of an impact on the environment.

From this point of view, product carbon footprinting and labeling, which has become a hot topic of discussion recently, is merely the carbon aspect of life cycle assessment practices that came out of the 1960s. For instance, if the life cycle of a bottle of Coke is to be assessed, then its environmental impact from raw material acquisition to waste disposal is analysed. Greenhouse-gas emission is only an assessment indicator, among others like wastewater and waste gas discharge.

Life cycle assessment, as an environmental management tool, has been widely implemented in developed countries; yet it has now become a great obstacle for carbon footprint measurement in China.

If we are to perform a life cycle assessment on a bottle of Coke, the ‘life path’ of the Coke from its birth to death should be ‘sketched’ first, from its raw materials, such as water, glass, additives, to its storage and transport; from store inventory, to its consumption, and empty bottle recycling (or disposal). This is rather a simple life cycle, but the environmental impact of every stage should be analysed.

Through analysis, we find out that common raw materials, like water and glass, are analysed in the life cycle assessment of a lot of different kind of goods. For example, if both the processing of Coke and that of Sprite required a tonne of water, then the emission level from water in each would be the same. In order for a more efficient and coherent product life cycle assessment system, emission levels of raw materials should be measured, standardised and published by the authorities. A database should be established and updated regularly to keep up with the huge variety of raw materials.

Since the 1990s, Great Britain has been building the world’s largest and most complete database. And the Republic of Korea has regularly invested in research efforts for their raw material emission database.

Thanks to the database systems developed from life cycle assessment needs, British company the Carbon Trust and the Korean Environmental Industry & Technology Institute (KEITI) have thus promoted product carbon labeling systems.

However, little research on life cycle assessment has been done in China, let alone a national emission database constructed. The only option for us is to take data directly from foreign databases. Yet, whether the same amount of emissions are produced by processing a tonne of rice in Britain and processing a tonne in China remains unknown. To develop a product carbon footprinting system in China, a national database has to be in place.

However, building a complete database system takes time. Calls for a carbon footprinting and labeling system are strong within Chinese society, but people seem to have overlooked the great database obstacle.