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Let's talk about improving environmental impact awareness / with Vladimír Kočí

We tend to believe that our actions don’t make a genuine difference in the grand scheme of things. But do our daily habits have a greater impact than we think? To what extent do individual choices influence the environment? Michael Londesborough sits down with Vladimír Kočí, Dean of the Faculty of Environmental Technology at UCT Prague, to discuss how life cycle assessment studies uncover the true impact of personal choice and help consumers make informed purchasing decisions.

ML (Michael Londesborough): What is the environmental impact footprint of the average Czech?

VK (Vladimír Kočí): Sitting here in Kabinet coffee shop makes me think about my daily consumption habits. I start my day by heating water for tea, then I cook some breakfast and I need to use some type of transport to get to work. And that’s just the morning. Having thought about this in the past led me to ponder about the consumption habits of an average Czech citizen. This prompted me to conduct a study, along with one of my University students. We began collecting data from numerous industrial areas such as energy generation and transport, food production, waste management and construction and ended up with a wide spectrum of data to evaluate.

We were surprised that some areas, such as waste management or personal transport, which get a lot of coverage in the media, are actually not as important as they’re made out to be. They have an impact, but when compared with energy production and food production, it’s quite minor. On the other hand, energy and electricity production release quite a high volume of emissions and have numerous other effects on the environment. Production goes hand in hand with consumption- the amount of energy we consume determines the amount of energy need and, consequently, the amount of emissions produced.

ML: If I’m not mistaken, around 50% of our energy in the Czech Republic is produced by burning coal. Should we change the energy mix and support nuclear energy generation? Or look at ways to mitigate our footprint and use less energy?

VK: Both should be considered. We need to lower personal energy consumption, for example through energy efficient product design and changing our consumer habits. Many Czech people heat their homes to needlessly high temperatures- up to twenty three degrees. Just a two degree decrease leads to quite significant energy savings. Even such small changes can make a big difference.

ML: Is it possible to evaluate how much worse coal burning energy production is than nuclear sources?

VK: It’s not easy or straightforward, but it is possible to get a general idea.

ML: What else surprised you while doing life cycle assessments?

VK: We’ve come across many surprises. For example, one of my students was assessing the impact of new waste water treatment technologies. At first glance, they are much more effective and innovative than current technology. But doing a life cycle assessment reveals that overall their impact is basically the same. We noticed that we tend to make three common mistakes when trying to improve the environment. The first is making only local improvements- we don’t solve the problem totally, only locally. The second is that we solve the problem only temporarily. Landfilling is a perfect example. We put waste in a landfill and forget about it for a few years or decades. But eventually the landfill starts leeching toxins. The third is improving one problem, but creating a different one in the process. For example, we might successfully lower emissions, but end up producing more toxic substances in the process, again only shifting the problem somewhere else.

ML: So to find truly effective solutions we need a more interconnected approach. A lot of focus today is on the idea of a circular economy- understanding true resource value and looking at ways to get the value back into the cycle. In terms of materials, plastic, in particular packaging, has received a lot of attention.  How do you see the challenges of packaging?

VK: I like plastics as a very complex material which can be used well in some specific applications. But I do have a problem with single use plastics because they’re unnecessary. I know that in some areas such as food packaging, especially dairy product packaging, it’s not easy to find other options, but generally, single-use plastics are problematic. We should change that somehow. Today, we are very focused on waste management, on recycling, on using waste plastics. That’s just one step, which we should maybe do today, but generally we should beware of single-use plastics.

ML: But as I gather, replacing single use plastic packaging with other materials, for example paper, carries its own costs- in particular, the amount of energy used in production. The lifecycle assessment suggests that it’s not such a simple solution.

VK: It’s one of the reasons I started thinking this way. I did a lifecycle assessment study comparing plastic bags with paper ones. Paper bags are hailed as “environmentally friendly” because paper is a natural material that decomposes quickly in the environment. But paper production is quite energy intensive. So we are only shifting the environmental impact- from waste management to the production phase. Plastic bags are better during production, but are a problem at the end of the lifecycle. When I compared the two, I found that each has specific environmental impacts in different phases of the lifecycle. Adding it all up reveals that the end result is basically the same. So the solution is neither one nor the other - we need a third option. In this case a cloth bag.

ML: Taking the whole body of your work, using lifecycle assessment studies, can you summarize what are the priority changes that we must make and how do we impart that change?

VK: First, it should be normal for us to spread data instead of focusing on only one specific topic. We have to sum everything together and adopt a holistic approach. As a consumer, I should consider all of the products I consume in a year and see what areas I can improve in. Not just say “waste management has an environmental impact, we have to improve the waste management system.”

ML: That means that we have to impart this change ourselves, rather than wait for government or business to make the change for us. Is that correct?

VK: Yes. We should go from the bottom up. People have to change their own approach. Enjoy life more with less consumption. I am realistic and don’t expect companies or politicians at the top level to make the change. They like the status quo. Their business models fit into this system perfectly. If we want to change something, we have to go from the ground up.

We need easily available information about the products we buy to accomplish this. We need to develop an easily understandable eco-labeling system. The first step is to get people involved and once they get involved, give them access to the necessary data.

ML: When we buy, for example, appliances, a color code lets us know how environmentally friendly and efficient the product is. I think it has a huge influence on consumers and can motivate which product they decide to purchase. Maybe we should put a similar system into place for fruits and vegetables- give easy access to life cycle assessment information so consumers can see the environmental impact of each piece of produce they are buying. Is that doable?

VK: It is and the European Commission is already working on such an approach. It’s not easy, because environmental impact cannot be boiled down to a single number. We cannot measure “the environment” with radar or some type of fingerprint because there are numerous areas to consider. Different products impact different areas. We have to consider factors such as global warming, toxicity, acidification, eutrophication and others. There are about ten main environmental problems we are facing today and it’s not easy to narrow them down to just one number. And if we give five numbers per product, it becomes too complicated for the average consumer.

ML: Are you, through your work, trying to simplify it for the public so the average consumer can make an informed decision?

VK: For this purpose, the carbon footprint is an acceptable value. It’s not perfect- there are some problems with it, but especially in terms of the Czech Republic, I think it’s quite a good indicator. It’s not only about climate change, about global warming, but also about a product’s dependency on the fossil economy. A fossil economy goes hand in hand with toxic impact such as acidification. This type of economy has more of an environmental impact than just global warming.

ML: Professor Kočí, working at a university, you’re surrounded by young, intelligent people. Are you optimistic about the future?

VK: I am. The new generation is quite different from us. They are used to an extremely fast exchange of information and, as a result, are far more involved in daily life than we were. Older generations tend to have a much more fixed mentality; younger generations are flexible. I don’t agree with some of their activities concerning climate change, because it’s not as easy as they might make it out to be, but I like their activism and that they are willing to be a part of the world. They are much less skeptical and cynical than older generations. A lot of my students are very active in selecting their research topics and they really want to study things that will be important for everyone.

ML: Prof. Kočí, on an optimistic note, we’ll bring this discussion to a close. Thank you very much for coming and sharing your thoughts and insights.