An Upfront Talk About Carbon With Lloyd Alter

For some time now, ecologists and environmentalists have been promoting life-cycle analyses – calculations of the environmental impact of a product, from the sourcing of materials all the way through to its disposal. While this is still a valid expenditure of effort, our guest today on Sea Change Radio argues that we may need to re-focus more narrowly on the carbon generated at the front-end of an article’s life: its production, transportation, delivery, and installation. He asserts that these “upfront carbon” emissions are the more urgent and immediate concerns, and we simply don’t have time to focus on the rest of the product’s life. This week we welcome back to the show author, environmental journalist, and design expert Lloyd Alter, to discuss his upcoming book, The Story of Upfront Carbon. We learn about the birth of the term, discuss why it’s a useful lens for making consumer decisions, and go down a carbon emissions rabbit hole on products like iPhones, electric vehicles, and e-bikes.

00:02 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:20 Lloyd Alter (LA) – How much is enough? How much do you need to be happy? So put all of this together and I come back to the three words which the whole book is about, which is “use less stuff.”

00:33 Narrator – For some time now, ecologists and environmentalists have been promoting life-cycle analyses – calculations of the environmental impact of a product, from the sourcing of materials all the way through to its disposal. While this is still a valid expenditure of effort, our guest today on Sea Change Radio argues that we may need to re-focus more narrowly on the carbon generated at the front-end of an article’s life: its production, transportation, delivery, and installation. He asserts that these “upfront carbon” emissions are the more urgent and immediate concerns, and we simply don’t have time to focus on the rest of the product’s life. This week we welcome back to the show author, environmental journalist, and design expert Lloyd Alter, to discuss his upcoming book, The Story of Upfront Carbon. We learn about the birth of the term, discuss why it’s a useful lens for making consumer decisions, and go down a carbon emissions rabbit hole on products like iPhones, electric vehicles, and e-bikes.

01:51 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Lloyd Alter. Lloyd is a lecturer in sustainable design at Toronto Metropolitan University and runs a successful Substack called Carbon Upfront and he’s an author and his latest book is called “The Story of Upfront Carbon.” Lloyd, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

02:12 Lloyd Alter (LA) – I’m happy to be here.

02:14 Alex Wise (AW) – So you came up with upfront carbon as a term. It replaced a much less clear term, embodied carbon. Why don’t you first explain why this language is important, and then we’ll dive into what it means.

02:33 Lloyd Alter (LA) – Well, 20 years ago what they used to talk about was embodied energy which was the energy it took to make something and that kind of made sense, you know, that’s the energy that went into it. And when we got worried about carbon rather than energy because we know it’s carbon dioxide that’s causing the climate change, people started using the term embodied carbon. But it makes no sense. If you look up the dictionary definition of embodied, it means  the carbon isn’t in it, the carbon is in the atmosphere. It’s not embodied at all. It’s the opposite of it. So I was sitting around in a Twitter conversation with an architect from Australia and another one from New Zealand, and we started, you know, the New Zealand architect started saying it should be vomited carbon or spit out carbon or something like that. Then George in Australia said, well, what about up front? And I said up front, carbon that’s much better. And I wrote about it and that’s basically how it came about. And it’s now accepted and used almost everywhere in the world except the US, which for some reason nobody’s picked up on the term up front yet. But maybe after my book comes out, they will.

03:51 AW – Well, let’s explain to listeners what it means and why it’s so important when you’re trying to calculate your own carbon footprint as a consumer.

04:00 LA – Well, my favorite example of that is my iPhone and everybody’s got an iPhone and it weighs what about 6 ounces at not much you can put it in your pocket, but to make that to put it together, Apple, which is one of the few companies that reveals this kind of information, estimates that 150 lbs. of carbon was released. You know 80 kilograms, 150 lbs. roughly of carbon went into the atmosphere and I always try and think, Can you imagine putting 150 lbs. in your pocket carrying the carbon that was released from that phone? And like I said, it’s not embodied in that phone. It’s in the atmosphere.

04:43 AW – It’s already been released before you bought it.

04:46 LA – Yes, everything about upfront carbon is before you pick up your Tesla at the Tesla dealer or wherever you pick up a Tesla. You’ve had 14 tons of carbon emitted in the atmosphere for the three ton two ton car. Everything that you buy, everything that’s made has ridiculous amounts of carbon. When I actually was writing my last book, because I have this Apple fetish and I own everything that Apple. I totaled up all the upfront carbon from all of my Apple products and it was actually the biggest single thing of my life that you know, I added up the IT was more than the furnace in my house. And because I don’t drive very much at all, it was more than my driving it. Just because, you know there’s a ton and a half of carbon in my iMac, there’s like a 800 kilograms in my MacBook Pro. Even my silly little watch is 38 kilograms. I mean, if it was 38 kilograms on my arm, I would not be able to lift it up to look at the watch. And so we have to think about it this way and the amounts of carbon because they’re vast. Our carbon footprint, when you think about it in pounds or kilograms like that, everything we buy has a huge impact.

06:01 AW – You say we have to think about that, but it takes some serious digging like there were no labels for all of your Apple products to then just reference and and take a calculator and then say a + B + C + d equals my upfront carbon costs. So are we going to see a revolution in labeling and how can consumers become more aware of what their upfront carbon costs are when they’re purchasing a product, Lloyd?

06:26 LA – Well, Apple, bless their hearts – as you said, there’s no label – Apple actually does prepare an environmental report and you can get the information for their products for every single thing that they make, which is wonderful. It’s what actually got me going on the concept. Seeing that information in the building industry, there are more and more companies that are producing this information. That’s what they, all environmental product declarations where they hire someone to do the work. But most companies don’t want you to know this information because you can find out how they make a product. It’s proprietary information and that you might be totally shocked. So for instance, Tesla, which did all of the work, had full environmental reports, but they never actually tell you the total tonnage. They tell you that your car actually has life cycle emissions just from the vehicle of so many grams of carbon per kilometer that you drive and then somewhere else they give you an estimate of all of their data is based on your driving so much a year. So you have to find all the different information and multiply it together. Companies don’t want to do it, and they don’t want to pay for it. And the building industry, a lot of them do, because the architects are demanding it. And in Europe, it’s becoming the law, and in Canada, it’s becoming the law where to get a building permit, you have to show what the upfront carbon is of your building and it’s going to be regulated. In Europe, the company Unilever promised that they were going to figure it out for all their food, but it’s really, really hard because of a thing called boundaries. Like, where do you stop when you measure it? When I tried to measure a chicken dinner, I found well, the chickens this much the cooking’s this much the packings this much. But the biggest thing in my whole chicken dinner was actually the delivery. And what about the kitchen? What about the building of the kitchen, where the rotisseries were? What about the guy who cooks the chicken driving in there? These are the things that are in the boundary that they’re all part of the chicken. But they’re impossible to calculate. Tesla was very clear when they did theirs, this did not include everybody driving to the Tesla fact. And you know how you draw these boundaries? Change it completely. But the lesson in all of it is that the carbon footprint of everything goes far, far further than you can ever imagine that it does.

08:58 AW – And what I’m concerned about is as consumers start to try to go down these rabbit holes, they end up throwing up their hands and say, “Ohh, what’s the difference? These things already exist, and it’s impossible to cut back your carbon because just getting it delivered here is going to cost as much.” Like it’s kind of like when apathetic voters just say, “well, all politicians are corrupt. What’s the point? I’m not going to vote.”

09:23 LA – You’re absolutely right about two things in there. It is a terrible rabbit hole. When you go down it, there’s no end to it and what the conclusion everybody is coming to who studies this is that the problem is that everything you buy is going to have this footprint and so that what we have to do, and the only way to deal with it, you can’t say, oh, I’ll get this iPhone versus that iPhone. What you have to do is I’m going to make my iPhone 11 pro that I’ve got here that I’m talking and do last as long as I possibly can and I’m not getting the 13 and I’m not getting the 4th. Because the longer I have it, the less carbon that is being emitted by not getting a new one.

10:05 AW – And as these products get better and better, I remember reading New York Times review of the iPhone 11 or 12 or whatever it was, and they were saying yes, this is a great phone and it it’s an improvement over the last iteration, but the last one was really good and we can’t recommend you go out and buy this new one, like, hold on to your iPhone. It’s still working.

10:27 LA – Well, this is actually a problem. The Insta-Pot company just went bankrupt and the reason they went bankrupt is that they made a really good product that nobody ever needed to replace. So once you’ve sold everybody an instant pot, who wants an Insta-pot? They had nothing they could do. Apple has to keep making their phones better and better, but they’re having, I think, incremental trouble making them better and better. Like I wanted the 14 has a slightly better camera than my 11. But is it better enough that I would ever notice? Or at the size I have used the pictures for in blogging what anyone else ever notice? No, they came out with a wide angle lens, so I had to have the 11 because for me, taking pictures of buildings, the wide angle lens was critical. But I don’t see anything coming down the pipe and the new phones that’s actually going to dramatically make me want to get it. And this is a big part of the function of what I talk about in the book. But you know, once you start doing this, you’re talking about dialing back the economy and everybody buying less and our whole economy is based on people buying more and people replacing stuff. And so you start getting into more deeper discussions about deep growth in the future of the economy and if everybody has to stop buying things. What do we all do for a living?

11:52 (Music Break)

13:11 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to author Lloyd Alter. His latest book is “The Story of Upfront Carbon.” So Lloyd, sticking with the iPhone for another minute, you mentioned that the upfront carbon cost is 86% of the total carbon outlay, the carbon life cycle of this product and and I think most consumers would think that electricity would be the biggest carbon usage of an electric device that they have to recharge daily. But that’s only 13% according to this information that you provided in the book, I thought that was really interesting. This is not unique to an iPhone. What are some similar examples?

14:00 LA – Well, again, the thing about the iPhone, the reason it is like that is Apple knows you want it as small as possible and to run as long as possible. So they’ve engineered the electronics to sip almost no electricity whatsoever. But designing their own chips and they’ve got some of the best, most power dense batteries in the world in the thing because you want it to last all day. So it’s a functional necessity for us that that phone sucks almost no electricity, which is how it’s only 13% if you take what’s happening in electric cars. What people are prioritizing isn’t the fact. That it’s light or that it’s efficient. They’re prioritizing that it’s the size of a pickup truck and that it goes from zero to 60 in two seconds because electric motors have incredible torque at zero when they start off from zero.

14:54 AW – But they’re also saying that their emissions are lower if they have an electric car, and that’s become our straight line calculus that we’re all making as like what’s coming out of the tailpipe. But there’s a lot more behind this, right? The batteries in them are huge and they take a lot of electricity to charge and the electricity mix in the United States is still pretty dirty in much of the country.

15:20 LA – So that just running it is still generating carbon dioxide emissions from the power plants, although they are far, far less than the carbon dioxide emissions and that come out of the tailpipe. They generate huge amount of upfront carbon making the batteries, although that’s getting better and better every year. The batteries are getting denser, the cars as they’re coming out now are incredibly heavy, like a Hummer. An electric Hummer weighs 9000 pounds. There’s almost not an electric vehicle that can legally drive over the Brooklyn Bridge. Once you get up to the Tesla Model X, their big SUV one, they’re over 6000 pounds. And when you look at the sign on either end of the Brooklyn Bridge, it says no vehicle over 6000 pounds. So you want to drive up there in F-150 Lightning, you want to drive up there in a Hummer. You’re not legally allowed to go across the bridge.

16:16 AW – Speaking of the F-150 you write about how they got the truck lighter by using aluminum instead of steel, but there’s a bigger environmental cost of virgin aluminum than steel because of of economies of scale, I imagine. But it’s hard to find out what kind of aluminum they’re using in their trucks, right?

16:37 LA – Exactly, you have no idea! I did a lot of digging to try and figure that out and aluminum has been nicknamed solid electricity and basically 50 percent, 6% of aluminum comes from China and is made at coal-fired electricity. So the carbon footprint of it is like about 18 tons of carbon emissions for one ton of aluminum. Other most aluminum in North America is made in Quebec because collectors lack huge amounts of hydroelectricity, so it’s much, much lower. It’s down at about two tons. The process still puts out some carbon dioxide. Apple invested with a couple of other companies in a new process that doesn’t put out any carbon dioxide in the smelting. Aluminum’s getting better and aluminum’s really highly recyclable, but we need more aluminum all the time. We have more than we can recycle. We need it for airplanes we need for electric cars, because they’re trying to lighten the car.

17:40 AW – Well, that’s my question is like so if we get a lighter car and it doesn’t need as many batteries, is that better than having to use virgin aluminum or not?

17:51 LA – Again, you have to look at all the equations and the balance and the rabbit hole that we’re going down. We don’t know. I would say absolutely and a car made of recycled aluminum that’s made with or with Canadian aluminum with hydroelectric aluminum from Canada or Iceland is going to be better than one made with Chinese aluminum, but we don’t know what’s in it and they’re not telling us.

18:16 AW – So it’s kind of like if you have an ingredient in your cereal, it says “sugar.” Where is that sugar coming from? Is this organic sugar?

18:26 LA – Is it American beet sugar or is it destroyed rainforest that’s been taken down for Brazilian former rainforest sugar? You don’t know.

18:35 AW – But it just says “sugar,” so you’re supposed to just accept that as the ingredient. But if you really want to make that calculus, you can go down a pretty big rabbit hole – what you’ve done for this book, and I appreciate it. So let’s move on to some of the other products that you you rabbit hole sticking to transportation, but switching from cars to E-bikes, something that we’ve talked about together on Sea Change Radio. We’re both enthusiastic E-bike riders and evangelists. I’ve quoted this stat that I saw that the Rivian truck. It’s, you know, ithis amazing truck. I think it’s faster than a Lamborghini and it’s electric, but I saw something that 4500 E-bikes could be built from the batteries that go into one Rivian truck. That’s a pretty big township 5000 people could start like riding around and getting most of their transportation needs satisfied by an E-bike, but yet we have one person driving their truck around really fast.

19:36 LA – And the truck is actually when it’s parked, taking up the space that you can park probably two dozen E-bikes, right? And this is one of the fundamental things that we have to look at when we’re thinking about the future of transportation and why I think actually I started with the E-bike, but I’m coming to think that the E-cargo bike is the real revolution, the world changing revolution. Because what I found is when I was just riding a bike, I wouldn’t take very much with me because of course the weight of everything mattered. When I got the E-bike and put pennies on it, I found well, I could shop for a lot of stuff. I could go to Home Depot often and I buy even plumbing parts. But you know, I wasn’t buying 2 by fours and things like. What’s happening with E-bikes is that where they originally were-bikes with a motor like mine looks like a classic Dutch bike with a motor added on to it. They’re becoming what are called utility bikes. They’re getting 20 inch wheels, smaller wheels like red, I think, is one of the big manufacturers that that’s really doing this, but turn with all of their wonderful e-bikes. They’re all going smaller wheels carrying bigger loads. Throw two kids in the back. Surly has done it with their big easy bikes – they are getting lower, bikes are getting stronger, bikes are holding more stuff.

20:59 AW – And they’re getting cheaper.

21:01 LA – And they’re getting cheaper now when the motor runs out, they don’t pedal like a bike. You’ve got to really slap to get that thing to move because they’ve got the smaller, the fatter wheels and they’re heavier. But they’re getting way more useful.

21:35 (Music Break)

22:10 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Lloyd Alter. He is a lecturer in sustainable design at Toronto Metropolitan University, and his latest book is “The Story of Upfront Carbon.” So the price point coming down on the cargo bike is critical. When we were talking about E-bikes earlier in a previous Sea Change Radio episode you said that they can be over $10,000 and for somebody who’s a parent who has two kids and like thinking well, my kids will only have two or three years on the back of this bike? That’s kind of a luxury item for more of a yuppie purchase than somebody who’s really looking at cutting costs. Buying a car for $5000 a used car makes more sense, maybe, than a $10,000 E-bike in in somebody’s calculation it it’s a luxury item, but now you’re saying that E-bikes, you write in the book, that these cargo bikes are coming down to below $2000, which I think is a huge price point barrier cycle.

23:14 LA – When you add on that, the-bikes are getting more affordable that you’re not paying insurance and you’re not paying for gas. Suddenly it looks it for a lot. How many American families have a second car and the second one is primarily being used often to slip the kids and then, you know, run to the office or whatever and many of those second cars could easily be replaced with a cargo bike for urban families. They could possibly be replacing both cars. An English study came out that looked and said that where the real E-cargo bike revolution and E-bike revolution was going to happen was in the suburbs, not in the cities, because in the cities like where I live, you know, I have a choice. I can take a subway or a streetcar. I can walk in many other places and I can drive or I can bike in the suburbs and in the more rural areas, people don’t have that choice. Or if they had 10 miles to go, a long hard bike ride, but suddenly if they’ve got a cargo bike with a decent motor with a decent battery on it, it can suddenly, for people who had no other choice before now can decide not to drive. And that’s critical. The other great thing about the suburbs is that the road allowances. They’re generally wide enough and the parking set up in such a way that you can actually put in bike infrastructure without taking much away from the drivers. And that’s of course when the drivers always complain, you’re taking away a lane, you’re taking away parking, but in the suburbs, you’re much less likely to do that. So this is where the I think the energy should be put. And this is where the money should be when you look at that bridge that collapsed in Philadelphia, that’s what a tanker truck took out a bridge that was part of 100 and important highway that 150,000 people drive on every day. And everybody said, “Oh my God, the entire Northeast United States is going to, like, close down.” And it didn’t. First of all, the traffic either vaporized, which they say happens all the time, or it just found other ways to go, and you know the world didn’t fall apart. Not having that highway, and of course all the resources of the government, the federal and the state government got in place to say we’re going to reopen that bridge in six days.

25:31 AW – So we’re running short on time, but I want you to give us an executive summary and hit upon some of the other topics that you explain in the book in terms of their upfront carbon.

25:43 LA – There are two ways I talk in the book. I talk about a couple of objects that I picked out that I think are interesting, like the puffer jacket or a hamburger or the single use coffee cup. I talk about starting with a 2 by 4 and build up two by fours into buildings and then I end up with my favorite subject which is the cargo bike that we’ve talked about. The other thing that I do in the book that I think that’s really important is that I think about strategies for life that how we have to deal with everything to reduce our carbon footprint. So we have to design things that are simpler than last longer. We have to design things that are flexible that we can use for more functions. We have to I picking up from Bucky Fuller, we have to think about. Ephemerality. And here’s my best example as, again, the iPhone that if you looked at a 1985 RadioShack advertisement, there’s like a whole page of everything, from VCR’s to cell phones to everything else, every single thing on that page of that ad can be done in your. For iPhone, it’s been ephemeral-lized down to using much, much less stuff and satiety. How much is enough? How much do you need to be happy? So put all of this together and I come back to the three words which the whole book is about, which is use less stuff.

27:01 AW – And if it can become more and more fashionable to buy used, vintage stuff, you could see a change in consumer buying habits. My 15 year old daughter, for example, she goes thrifting with her friends. I think they’re just as attached to finding something that’s cool that was made in the 80s or 90s that they can rewear as opposed to going to the mall. Buying a brand new dress. That template could be a very powerful one across the whole spectrum of consumer goods.

27:33 LA – And they’re sewing again. So many kids are – actually my daughter set up a whole sewing room. And she makes all of her own all her own clothes. And I thought, “my God, my grandmother didn’t do that.” And so we’re seeing a lot of and she’s obviously into thrifting as well. It’s a very big deal and I think that’s a wonderful change.

27:54 AW – Well, the book is called the story of upfront carbon and the author is Lloyd Alter. Lloyd, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by James Brown, Bruce Springsteen, and Simon & Garfunkel. To read a transcript of this show, go to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.