The engineers helping us to see the real size of our environmental footprints

The Industrial Ecology Virtual Laboratory is helping governments and businesses see that society has an environmental footprint extending far beyond its physical boundaries.

Environmental Engineering Footprint

Professor Tommy Wiedmann and his colleagues at UNSW and IELab have created tools that enable businesses and government bodies to assess how sustainable their activities are. Image: Shutterstock

It would be easy to think of our carbon footprint as a reflection of the total energy we consume to run our households, run our businesses, get around town and fly on our holidays.

But for industrial ecologists like Professor Tommy Wiedmann at UNSW’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the footprint is so much bigger than that.

Prof Wiedmann is part of a multi-institutional team at the Industrial Ecology Virtual Laboratory (IELab) that is devoted to the design of industrial systems that are sustainable. To be truly sustainable, they not only need to follow best practice in their local operations to minimise their environmental impact, but they also need to understand the impact of their external industrial partners.

“When we look at an individual’s or a company’s activity, we’ll look at the direct impact their activities have, such as machinery used, fuel consumed, whether they add waste products to the environment, and even whether they generate noise,” Prof Wiedmann says.

“But there will be an indirect impact as well: Where did the materials come from, what energy did the supplier of those materials expend, did they negatively impact their own local environment, how sustainable are their practices?

“In other words, your footprint goes well beyond your own consumption and practices in your local area, it includes the footprint of your suppliers and partners.”

Professor Tommy Wiedmann

Professor Tommy Wiedmann

To this end, Prof Wiedmann and his colleagues at UNSW and IELab have created tools that enable businesses and government bodies to assess how sustainable their activities are and how they compare with others, both locally and globally.

“With the IELab tools that we have developed, we have now a method that allows us to assess environmental impact for any product at any time,” he says. “We call this the total footprint. So if we sum up all the impacts along the production and supply chain of a product, this gives us the total environmental footprint of that product. And we then have a measure that we can compare to different organisations and different products.”

But it’s not just the big, bad businesses churning out carbon that come under IELab’s scrutiny. The idea of a total footprint extending well beyond one’s own geographical boundaries can also apply to all individuals in a society. In the global economy, much of what we choose to buy – whether out of necessity or desire – has been produced overseas by businesses that have their own environmental impact. Prof Wiedmann wants governments and consumers to start owning that indirect, external impact.

“This hasn’t really been looked at before. Sure, our cities and our towns can do something about their carbon emissions through things like using renewable energy and reusing waste, but they should also keep an eye on how they can influence patterns of consumption. A good place to start is by encouraging sharing of goods or services so people don't have to buy new stuff all the time.”

Already there is progress here with some companies and government organisations signing up to use IELab’s strategies and tools. An example is the Inner West Council in Sydney which launched 'Rethink Your Wardrobe' to encourage clothes swapping as a way to counter the 60,000 tonnes of unwanted clothes that go to landfill each year.

Prof Wiedmann is the first to admit that getting people and governments to change their habits is a tough assignment.

“It's difficult because we're still generally following the growth paradigm that the more GDP the better,” he says. “If we are really serious about protecting the climate and trying to get emissions as rapidly down as we have to, if we don't want to exceed temperature rises of two degrees Celsius, then we have to think about different ways of consuming. But that's a hard message to sell. Because we have been selling the opposite for decades, right? ‘The more you buy the better our economy’.”

So, with federal and state governments inextricably wedded to the ‘growth is good’ narrative, does Prof Wiedmann have hope for the future?

“Yes, I am hopeful that our work in the IELab and with industry at least gives us the awareness of this idea that there is a footprint that we are responsible for that includes emissions and impacts elsewhere. And the message is slowly coming through like in the example of the Inner West Council.

“And while the pace of change doesn't look fast enough at the moment, there is still reason for optimism because we have all the technology we need in terms of renewables – prices of these are coming down. If we just had more supporting policies, it could make the transition quicker.

“But even without that, the economics now are in favour of renewables, so, in that space, I think we're going to see a lot of change happening anyway.”