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Section: Application Domains

Ecological accounting for sectorial pressure assessment

One of the major issues in the assessment of the long-term sustainability of urban areas is related to the concept of “imported sustainability”. Cities bring in from the outside most of their material and energy resources, and reject to the outside the waste produced by their activity. The modern era has seen a dramatic increase in both volume and variety of these material flows and consumption as well as in distance of origin and destination of these flows, usually accompanied by a spectacular increase in the associated environmental impacts. A realistic assessment of the sustainability of urban areas requires to quantify both local and distant environmental impacts; greenhouse gas emissions are only one aspect of this question. Such an assessment brings to light the most relevant direct and indirect lines of action on these issues. In this respect, it is useful to introduce the alternative concepts of consumer versus producer responsibility (or point of view).

The producer point of view is the most useful to pinpoint relevant direct lines of actions on environmental pressures due to production. In other respects, any territory imports and exports goods and services from and to the rest of the world. The consumer point of view provides information on the indirect pressures associated with these exchanges, as production responds to a final demand. Tracking the various supply chains through the analysis of the structure of the local economy and its relations and dependencies to the external world allows us to identify critically important contributions to environmental pressures; this also enables us to define fair environmental indicators in order not to attribute environmental pressures to producers only (whose responsibility is the easier to quantify of the two). In this approach, the producer responsibility follows directly from the measurement of its energy and material uses, while the consumer responsibility is established indirectly through an allocation of the impacts of production to the final consumers, but this second mode of allocation is to some extent virtual and partly subjective. Four methods stand out:

Each of these is based on a well-defined structuring element: mass conservation for MFA, measure of industrial inter-dependencies for IOA, identification of all the steps from cradle to grave for LCA, measure of biocapacity demand for EF. The different methods have preferred areas of application. For example, EF is more relevant for analyzing primary production such as agricultural staples, wood, etc. IOA is more focused on whole industrial sectors, while LCA is geared towards end-user products, taken as functional units; finally, primary materials (such as metals), waste and emissions are more easily characterized through MFA. Methodological choices are driven by the type of question one needs to address, data availability and collection method and the spatial scales under consideration. Indeed, data can be used in two different ways: bottom-up or top-down. The bottom-up data is more precise, but in general precludes comprehensiveness; on the contrary, the top-down data is by nature more comprehensive, but is not suited for a detailed, fine-scale analysis of the results.

STEEP is pursuing its research program on this theme with three major goals: 1) Creating a comprehensive database enabling pressure analyses; 2) Developing methodologies and models resolving scaling issues, and developing algorithms allowing us to rigorously and automatically obtain adequate assessments; 3) Providing a synthetic analysis of environmental pressures associated to the major material flows, at various geographic levels (employment catchment area, département and région, for France), with the explicit aim of incorporating this type of information in the public decision process on environmental issues, via specifically designed decision-help procedures.