Events & Media

April 25, 2016

The Environmental Impacts of Environmentally Oriented Technologies
Bren associate professor Sangwon Suh is lead editor for a timely special issue of Yale University’s Journal of Industrial Ecology published this week.

Sangwon Suh

Last week, global leaders convened at the United Nations to sign on to the Paris climate agreement and commit to a wide range of strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Expectations are particularly high for two of the most widely recognized solutions to climate change: energy efficiency and renewable energy. But Bren professor Sangwon Suh and others want to know what the environmental impacts will be from large-scale deployment of those technologies, especially from a life-cycle perspective; and also by how much the gains from energy-efficient technologies can be multiplied if GHG emissions from electricity production are also reduced.

A special issue of the journal Industrial Ecology, published this week and edited by Suh, is intended to advance understanding of those questions. Titled “Environmental Impacts of Demand-Side Technologies and Strategies for Carbon Mitigation,” the issue was prepared in collaboration with the International Resource Panel (IRP) of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), of which former Bren School dean Ernst von Weizsäcker is a member. Several of the studies in the issue will serve as technical appendices to a forthcoming IRP report on life-cycle implications of energy-efficiency technologies intended to infrom policy-makers.

“Previous research efforts on the life cycle environmental impacts of individual technologies have used different assumptions and data regarding system boundaries and supply-chain emissions, or have focused on a single region, making it difficult to compare the impacts of various technologies,” Suh explained. “The contributors to this special issue overcome that problem by employing comparable scenarios, assumptions, and data, and by covering all nine global regions to the extent possible.”

“If we are to meet climate-change targets,” said Peter Crane, dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, “we need to dramatically decarbonize electricity generation and use technologies for energy efficiency on a very large scale. To do this effectively, we need to know not only the impact on greenhouse gas emissions, but also the environmental and natural-resource implications of these changes.”

Previous research on individual technologies has used different assumptions and data or have focused on a single region, making comparisons difficult. The contributions to this special issue seek to overcome this problem by employing comparable scenarios, assumptions, and data and by covering all nine global regions to the extent possible.

“Research confirms that energy efficiency in general is great, but not without ‘fine print,’” said Suh. “Demand-side technologies [so-called because they can decrease energy demand] reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as many other environmental impacts. However, the magnitudes of those improvements vary widely among the technologies and regions. In some cases, demand-side technologies may increase resource consumption and even GHG emissions. It is crucial to understand where, when, and in which technology the investment should be placed to maximize the benefits.”

Contributions to this special issue cover a range of technologies for both production and consumption of energy including:

  • lighting
  • building energy management
  • cogeneration
  • copper smelting
  • industrial symbiosis (by-product exchange and resource sharing)
  • transportation and logistics.

Articles in the special issue will be freely downloadable on the Web for a limited time.