Material-resource-energy efficiency

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Private standards which take into account resource use or carbon/water footprints are a newly evolving area since consumers increasingly take into account and demand information about processes and production methods (PPMs), typically indicated to them by labels. More sophisticated standard and labelling schemes are based on product life cycle analysis.

Improvements in resource/ material/ energy efficiency which reduce a products’ carbon footprint are typically achieved through less resource, material and energy input at the production stage or, in the case of energy efficiency, during usage of a product. Progress on the latter may have however been impeded by the rebound effect – physical consumption is likely to increase as a result of productivity increases – which leads to lower costs and prices and the shifting of thus saved consumer money or investment funds. This is called the financial rebound effect.

In addition, there are two other clusters of rebound effects: material rebound and cross-factor rebound effects. Given the lower per-capita income and resource endowment level in developing countries, the rebound effect will be particularly pronounced. However, at the very end of a products’ life-cycle, options for fostering material re-use, recovery and recycling need to be explored and implemented at national and local levels in order to preserve energy and natural resources.

From a developing country perspective carbon footprint/ product life-cycle assessment in particular implies considerable compliance costs as advanced supply-chain management systems and control mechanisms need to be installed.

From a developing country perspective carbon footprint/ product life-cycle assessment in particular implies considerable compliance costs as advanced supply-chain management systems and control mechanisms need to be installed. Additional challenges in this context arise from interconnected global supply chains with components from and production stages in different countries. Thus, capacity and infrastructure building in conjunction with regional dialogue and cooperation will be necessary to support developing countries to make the most out of the new market opportunities.

Product life-cycle/ carbon footprint related standards generally fall into the category of environmental standards. Examples include the International Carbon Footprint Standard, ISO 14067 which is currently developed and envisaged being launched by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) towards the end of 2012 in addition to national or regional schemes and regulations.

The newly evolving area of water footprinting, i.e measuring and displaying the amount of freshwater used in the goods and services consumed or used in production, on the one hand encourages companies to minimize the water input during the production stages and, on the other hand, informs consumers so that they can choose less water intensive products and give preference to products from water rich areas or areas with sustainably managed water systems. In order to avoid placing developing countries, which are most severely affected by the consequences of global warming and in which climate change already induces water scarcity, at an immediate economic disadvantage, standard setting in this area must be accompanied by capacity building activities in order to level the playing field. Another complication is that the amount of water required for producing a certain good or commodity also naturally varies in different geographic locations implying the danger of misinformation which is increased when too complex or inconsistent methodologies are in place.

A Global Water Footprint Standard is currently developed by the Water Footprint Network and its partners. Besides, ISO is considering establishing a standard on water footprint (ISO 14046) which would complement existing standards on life-cycle assessment (LCA).

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