Distance to Market - A Small Life Cycle Impact

Saturday, November 27, 2010 by Roger Kerrison , under

Distance to Market - A Small Life Cycle Impact
Last week we blogged about the incorrect assumption that the large GHG increase between a glass of Mobius Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc consumed in New Zealand or consumed in Australia was due to "food miles", or in more technical terms, transportation.

The blog was distributed through linkedin and twitter, and received some interesting comment from experts in the field of life cycle assessment. The first response came from John Henry Looney, Managing Director of UK based Sustainable Direction Ltd, who provide sustainability services to the UK beverage industry:
"Interesting it has taken this long for this perspective to get into the public arena.

A full cradle to cradle to analysis of a product life cycle, of which many have been completed for some years, shows regularly transport not to be the major issue. For example for UK beer the main carbon and resource use (and note these are different and both important) is due to raw material and in particular the nitrogen fertiliser used with its high embodied energy and to refrigeration and storage at the point of use, so not even manufacture and certainly not transport.

It is good to see hard science breaking through into public awareness, we need more of this to get people focused on the good things they can do and to feel good about it (positive reinforcement encourages behaviour change)."

This insight was agreed upon by Craig Jones, a leading expert in embodied carbon who works for Sustain Ltd, also in the west of England:

"I also find it curious why its taken so long for people to understand this. This also applies to products and materials. In the majority of products I've analysed transport is certainly not the significant contributor to its life cycle impacts. I've now analysed the embodied energy and carbon of hundreds of materials (www.bath.ac.uk/mech-eng/sert/embodied) and for the vast majority of them transport is probably 7%, or so, of the embodied carbon. Although of course there are exceptions (sand, aggregates) and this doesn't mean that transport should be neglected."

One of Craig's colleagues at Sustain, Matthew Fishwick, also backed up the fact that transport is not of major significance for food and beverage products:

"I always found the focus on transport quite strange! For the majority of product carbon footprints I have carried out I have also found transport to be a relatively small proportion of overall impacts. This is especially true for food and agricultural products."

Through the work of such expert analysis the "food miles" concept has all but been debunked by those in the technical carbon arena. The issue though is that it is intuitive for those without technical knowledge, the media and consumers, to assume that transport is a significant component. The continued emergence of product carbon footprinting will provide more transparency in this space.

Another important point is that if transport is not as wholly significant as we were once led to believe, then we can look more towards a global market model whereby component parts of goods are produced in regions that have natural or technical production efficiencies.


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