Through my work at GreenMicrofinance, I have been drawn into the Wharton social impact scene, and was lucky enough to attend a wonderful conference today hosted by IGEL, Wharton's high level Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership. The topic, Life Cycle Analysis, was addressed by from multiple perspectives: the science, the implementation, the marketing, the consumer. What emerged is that "LCAing" is a wonderful tool, but is limited, like all analysis, by the many unintended consequences and unknowable variables that sneak in from planning to execution, consumption, and - it it's a permanent object - obsolescence or breakdown.
The sticky idea for me: how do you plan for variables which are hard to predict? Prof Noam Lior said essentially prophecy is most effective in retrospect.... He sited several initiatives heralded in their times as major problem solvers: the Aswan Dam and desalination technology. Now it is recognized that the Aswan Dam has stripped the Nile Valley of natural silt nutrient replenishment, and it needs synthetic fertilization. Desalination is now viewed as aggressive, undesirable hydrotech....
The case of Fiji water was raised, first as a ridiculous use of resources, shipping water around the world. Then Maggie McIntosh, who worked at Conservation International, gave more backstory. Fiji has virtually no industry, and the water business helps maintain its biodiversity hotspots and provides jobs; without those in place, the areas would likely be stripped for timber sales. One suggestion, not a bad one: just import the water bottle labels!
My fantasy: some day, just like calories are listed on food labels, the carbon footprint will be listed on each project. Of course the devil is in the details. How do you measure the carbon footprint of products with subcomponents and track it all the way through the production process?