Thursday, February 25, 2010

Scratching the Surface

In one of the recent past blogs I was talking about "low hanging fruit." This came about in response to a discussion about things that companies do to address the concerns of 1) understanding what green manufacturing means to them, 2) understanding how to make some measurement of "green-ness", and 3) using that, determine where they are on a scale of "green-ness" using those metrics.

A comment came in to the effect that "this is great for large companies, but what can smaller companies do if resources (financial or staff) are limited?" So ... I said go for the "low hanging fruit" and proceeded to give some examples. I received a number of comments about that discussion and a subsequent one on "choices" that you are confronted with when, with these metrics, things don't always fall clearly on one side or the other of the green line.

I am accumulating more examples, and some more straightforward analysis ideas, of low hanging fruit and decision making and we'll get back to that sometime in the future.

So, how are the title of this posting and low hanging fruit connected? Simple - the low hanging fruit is not always the most effective way to address the problem in the long run. You may have to dig a little deeper. That is not to say that we should "leave any energy on the table" but it is necessary to understand the magnitude of the challenge and where to best concentrate your efforts. And, sometimes the easiest stuff doesn't do much to advance the cause, specially with respect to greening manufacturing.

I like to represent "sustainability" as in the diagram below - referred to as a sustainability frame of reference. The diagram shows, along the vertical axis, a level of impact (like generation of green house gases) or consumption (like energy, water, other materials) as a function of time along the horizontal axis. Usually, unfortunately, these curves of consumption and impact, go from lower left to upper right

indicating increases over time. This is usual because there are more people and, even if they consume the same or impact the same per capita, more people means more impact or consumption. Then, we can usually define a sustainable rate of impact or consumption. Scientists and others are discussing what is a sustainable rate of green house gas emission (GHG)in order to maintain a certain max level of CO2 in the atmosphere. We can, for example, define a sustainable rate of water consumption based on rainfall and underground sources so that we don't deplete the natural sources by overuse. Unless we can get to that level (use without depleting the resource for the future ... that's future as in "forever") we will not have a sustainable situation.

The problem is that we are usually over the sustainable rate of consumption or impact. So the challenge is, to each of us in our own area of influence, to reduce this so that over time we reach sustainability. The gap shown between the growing curve and the sustainable level is impressive and growing. We are not likely to close it with one solution. This is where the concept of "technology wedges" comes in. I refer to opportunities for greening  after a concept proposed by Pacala and Socolow to address the big gap between the present trajectory and impact of CO2 on the atmosphere (business as usual – BAU) and a sustainable level – and how to close this gap in 50 years. (The full citation is “Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50  Years with Current Technologies,” Science 13 August 2004: Vol. 305. no. 5686, pp. 968 – 972.)

The technologies for greening manufacturing are each "wedges" that, when added together, can make a significant impact (along with all the other wedges from other sources). These wedges will include some low hanging fruit but will, probably, require many significant changes.

To determine how significant, we need to look at some information. Let's turn to some high priced consultants! For example, McKinsey published volume 2 of its "Pathway to a Low Carbon Economy" Report in 2009 (see to download your own copy) to, as it states, "provide an objective and uniform set of data that can serve as a starting point for corporate leaders, academics, and policy makers when discussing how best to achieve emission reductions." The report does not deal with assessment of regulatory issues or policy effectiveness.

The McKinsey report focuses on the goal of reducing green house gases enough through the year 2030 to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. The results of their analysis indicates (and I quote from the report here):
- Opportunities can be grouped into three categories of technical measures: energy efficiency, low–carbon energy supply, and terrestrial carbon.
- Capturing all the potential will be a major challenge: it will require change on a massive scale, strong global cross-sectoral action and commitment, and a strong policy framework.
- While the costs and investments seem manageable at a global level, they are likely to be challenging for individual sectors. And,
- Delays in action of even 10 years would mean missing the 2 degrees Celsius target.

OK. So let's not get into whether or not we all agree that global warming is significant, but, this is one of the "gaps" we discussed above and the report puts some scale on the "size of the wedges" needed.

So, what can we do? What are the wedges we could employ here? Here is a neat representation of the "cost of abatement" to achieve these reduced levels of atmospheric CO2 from Vattenfall (a European energy company) done as part of the McKinsey study. You can get the report this is from The chart shows (and you'll probably need to click on the image to get a larger version to see the details) the cost of abatement (or reduction) of

CO2 based on a series of "wedge technologies" or opportunities to reduce GHG emissions.  The height of each bar represents the global average cost in Euros of avoiding 1 ton of CO2 equivalent for each measure. Negative cost means the savings realized in the improvement pay for the technology employed or change made for the improvement. The graph displays, left to right, the lowest-cost abatement opportunities to the highest-cost. From left, we see improvements in insulation, fuel efficiency, lighting, air conditioning, etc. all the way up to "breakeven" at standby losses. Actions further to the right (with a positive cost shown, in euros/ton of CO2 equivalent abated) will not break even. You could call some of the far left ones (no political connotation implied!) as low hanging fruit but many, such as improved fuel efficiency will not come easily.

Many of these technology wedges are related to manufacturing. Fuel efficient vehicles require precision manufacturing to make more efficient engines, drive trains, etc. More efficient air conditioning systems need to be manufactured. And we want to make sure that the "environmental cost" of that manufacturing figures into our decision on what technology gets the efficiency more efficiently. Reduction of waste requires changes in manufacturing throughout the entire supply chain. And so on for most of the items seen in the figures.

Next time we will look at what is really needed, more than a scratch, to change the impacts from manufacturing to turn the curve around and approach sustainability. We will go into in more detail on the level of change needed. More than just low handing fruit or scratching the surface.


  1. great blog. This entry reminds me about a device that was made in the 1980s to make furnaces more efficient. It capture the excess heat that was given off and recycled it back into the structure that heated the air therefore it used less energy to heat the air up to the set temperature. I believe this same method of recycling can be applied to many of our every day actions and consumption. We need to be the change we want to see in the world.

  2. Thanks for the comment...your observation is smack on target. The benefit to such "devices" is that, in addition to the reduced energy requirement it also shrinks the CO2 footprint...which is becoming increasingly important.

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