A Look at the Green Labs NL Project

Last week I raised a few questions about the kind of futures are envisaged for the planet from a rather argumentative standpoint: what will the political implication be if we take the technological fix approach to defending the climate?

Today I want to cast some light on a project that is asking another related question: what are the environmental consequences of actually carrying out scientific research?

This question moves beyond the idea that science and technological development might be able to help in reaching predetermined environmental standards (think about the Paris accord) or aims (UN Sustainable Development Goals) as it questions the research practices that might lead to this.

How can scientists make their research greener?

A small group of scientists in the Netherlands aim to investigate this question. They call themselves Green Labs NL.

From the website:

Green labs NL was started in 2021 by a few members of the Dutch Scientific Community who realized they shared a passion for making their science more sustainable.

The group aim to build a wider community in The Netherlands to help encourage individual scientists, lab groups and whole institutes to go greener when it comes to how we use our lab spaces, and the way we do science. The platform can aid by sharing resources and information, but also by bringing other like-minded scientists together.

It is run by scientists, and is fully non-profit. There is no CEO, CSO, … It is kept alive by the scientific community! 

This small team of scientists (4 people) have launched a really interesting blog and just held their first online Green Labs NL network meeting (in English).  The website also hosts a forum and a useful links section, one of which leads to Harvard University’s Green Labs website, so they are not alone in this movement.

This is an exciting development and I will certainly follow their work, and hope that some of our Technology Bloggers readers might do the same.

Green, Environmentally Friendly Economic Growth

Green Growth Through Technology

I have been following the European Biotechnology Seminar series 2021, an online University run series of 20 minute presentations that take in lots of different aspects of technology.

It’s the second series (here for a review of the first) and really interesting.

Yesterday we got into a discussion about the problems of what we might like to think of as intelligent sustainable growth, the use of technology to reduce emissions and help to improve the health of the planet while also producing economic growth.

The talk was about evaluating sustainability. This is not an easy thing to do in reality, as there are lots of factors that we might like to include, an endless number of factors are really possible, depending on your point of view.

CO2 output, water use, pollution of the land, use of space, just to think about environmental issues. But sustainability also involves social sustainability, and economic. If we close all the factories down then half of the problem will be resolved. But is that socially or economically sustainable?

So we find ourselves having to make decisions about what we are going to address, weight the various aspects of interest and then try to compare one approach with another.

This brought in a discussion about framing the future. Any presentation that we see about addressing climate change today makes proposals, the world will be intelligent, connected and electric. If we frame the future as this, we should understand that we are not only making a proposal, but also excluding other paths. Once electric transport is promoted as the future for transport, others fall by the wayside and what we get is a future of electric transport.

The green growth model (technological solutions) also brings other things into play that are not so broadly discussed: the manufacturing of all of this technology requires raw materials, and a large percentage of those that we use today lie in developing nations.

Lithium Mining

Namibia and Zimbabwe are two of the world’s largest lithium producers today. Chile, China and Australia are the biggest by far in terms of production, the USA for deposits, while the largest mining companies are multinationals, with extraction processes spread across the world. And thanks to its use in batteries this is a growth industry, with current production expected to double by 2024!

The largest project in Zimbabwe appears to be Chinese owned and run (Sinomine), While the largest in Namibia is Canadian.

All of which brings back thoughts of my sociology studies and the start of the mining exploitation by the Belgians and French in Africa. They called in colonialism in those days, taking raw materials from a third country to feed the ruling nation’s economy. The reality also includes polluting other people’s back yards, cheap life and labour.

Any Suggestions?

I am not suggesting that the battery/electric transport future should not go ahead, far from it. Regular readers will have seen lots of my posts about environmentally friendly, energy saving and producing technology, but there are more complications to the model that we like to think about.

Sitting in Europe it is easy to take the technological path without fully working through the consequences for other peoples and global politics. Fed the narrative of doing the right thing for the Earth, always trying to do what is best, but without a full picture of the implications, we (I too) fall into line within the narrative, we drive it and make both the positive and the negative sides real.

The Jevons Paradox

The Paradox

We might like to think that as technology develops we will be able to address all sorts of environmental issues by making our things (machines of all types) more efficient. Cars will run on less or renewable fuel, electricity costs will come down as sustainable solutions are developed, batteries will run our transport systems etc.

There is however a paradox involved, known as the Jevons Paradox, developed in 1865 and since greatly debated and to some extent tested and seen (to some extent I stress).

In 1865, the energy of choice was coal. James Watt had devised a steam engine that was much more efficient that the previous Newcomen design. This new design led to production costs falling as less coal was used in the process, but what had not been foreseen was that coal use would dramatically increase rather than decrease.

The reasons are simple to see. As the materials (energy) become more efficient they become relatively cheaper. An article that required ten kilos of coal to produce now only required six, becoming cheaper to produce and so easier to sell.

The machines producing these goods became cheaper to run, so were used more (and more of them were built). The result was an acceleration in the use of coal, not a decrease.

Further Research into the Paradox

There are also lots of pieces of research that have looked into this paradox in more recent times. In 2005 a report came out (here, quite technical though) that included summaries of lots of this research.

A look at cars is quite instructive. It appears that as fuel efficiency improves, drivers chose to use their cars more. So there is a relationship between improved efficiency and extra miles. If (as some of this research suggests) US citizens travel 20 – 25% more in their cars because the costs are lower, but the car is only 15% more efficient, fuel use will actually go up.

This also effects a broader set of consumption measurements. The more miles we drive the more wear and tear we cause on our cars. The vehicles will have to be replaced quicker. This will also cause more wear to the roads, and on our tyres  and brakes (some studies suggest that 60% of new (efficient) vehicle pollution comes from tyres, brakes and other non-emission sources).

We have written a lot about energy use on the blog, and I have to agree with Christopher in his last post:

We have to use less power, but that might require looking at the problem from a few different view points, and looking into a few dusty corners that we might have overlooked.

Energy efficient production is not the answer without broader political and more widespread change.