2100.05 ~ Lifecycle Assessments

My last post on Martin Heidegger and Buckminster Fuller garnered lots of interest from readers about environmental considerations associated with technology. For this post, I thought I’d continue the discussion by introducing a methodology for measuring and accounting for environmental impacts.

A structured way to analyse the environmental impacts of your technology can come in the form of a lifecycle assessment (LCA). An LCA considers all the material impacts that stem from your technology—including raw mineral extraction, product manufacturing, distribution, recycling, and disposal. It considers everything that is consumed and emitted from cradle to grave.

LCAs can applied to both “hard goods” and “soft goods.” Hard goods are technologies with clearly physical characteristics, like smart thermostats or biofuels. Soft goods are ephemeral, intangible technologies like software. Something like Amazon Web Services cannot be seen or touched. LCAs are especially good for soft goods because their consumption of matter and energy are usually harder to grasp and easier to ignore.

Black sludge pours into the lake - one of many pipes lining the shore (Credit: Liam Young/Unknown Fields)

An artificial lake outside Baotou, Inner Mongolia. Pipes along the shoreline spew toxic sludge from the processing of rare earth minerals found in technologies like wind turbines, electric car motors, smartphones, and servers. Source: BBC.

The International Organisation for Standards (ISO) outlines four phases to conducting an LCA. The first phase defines the scope of the assessment where objectives, goals, and boundaries are clearly laid out. The second phase creates an inventory of “flows” that are inputted and emitted from the environment by your technology. Flows can include water, energy, and various materials (whether solid, liquid, or gaseous). Once an inventory of flows are created, an analysis of their potential environmental impacts are done. This analysis encompasses the full range of activities that take place from development, production, use, and disposal of the technology. The final phase is an interpretation of the results. The ISO standards outline activities that include validating results, evaluating completeness, and drawing implications.

LCAs are often in-depth activities carried out by dedicated teams within multinational corporations, consultancies, and governments. They can rely heavily on data collected from mature industries, with results hinging on assumptions encoded during modelling activities.

Quantitative forms of LCAs are fundamentally limited to things that can be measured and quantified—which risks excluding crucial environmental considerations. Moreover, the complexities of impacts to living ecosystems cannot be captured. An LCA can determine material impacts, but not necessarily second- and third-order events that can result from ecosystems being disrupted by human activities.

Despite the complexities and limitations of LCAs, technology organizations of all sizes can draw from LCA activities to develop a fuller picture of environmental considerations associated with their technologies.

Anatomy of an AI system was an in-depth analysis by Kate Crawford and Vladen Joler on the labor, data, and environmental resources powering an Amazon Echo speaker. The Amazon Echo is an ingenious, seamless voice assistant. But beneath the magic of its user experience is a complex web of interlocking systems that are often under-appreciated, misunderstood, or even problematic.

For emerging technologies, the environmental impacts are yet-to-be-seen and contingent on decisions made during their development. For instance, the net-impact to pollution brought about by autonomous vehicles (AVs) depends upon variables like technology maturity, the cost of AVs relative to alternative forms of transportation, infrastructure investments, engine/battery technologies, and acceptable wait times for trips.

To deal with such uncertainties, Benjamin Wender et al. advise using anticipatory variants of LCAs. Anticipatory assessments are intentionally non-predictive. Instead, they explore reasonable and extreme-case scenarios that result from key decisions and assumptions about how your business operates.

The benefit of peering into possible futures of environmental impacts is that you can gain new perspective on the sorts of social and environmental values that shape your technology. Designing to minimize disruption to specific resources can be a powerful frame for decision making. You may also find that certain decisions aren’t yours to make alone. Acknowledging the voices of stakeholders who are impacted by certain decisions might be the right thing to do.

Even if an LCA is completed as a purely qualitative exercise over the course of an afternoon, it could surface critical issues that require addressing to support your organization’s contribution to global sustainment.