Tag Archives: carbon footprint

A new study says it’s time to start recycling anesthetics

Times are tough for everybody — but are they ‘recycle our anesthetics’ tough? A team of researchers says yes.

Healthcare can be an important source of greenhouse gas emissions. It accounts for around 5% of all emissions in the UK, for example, or around 10% for the US, a new study from the University of Exeter explains. Inhaled general anesthetics make up a significant part of that, as they are potent greenhouse compounds and very little of them are broken down in the bodies of patients.

Image via Pixabay.

The authors explain that recycling these substances can thus have a meaningful and beneficial effect on the climate. An hour-long administration of two common anesthetics, sevoflurane and desflurane, produce around 1.5 and 60kgs of carbon dioxide equivalent, they add. However — these figures don’t take into account emissions from the anesthetics’ manufacturing process, meaning the total figures are much higher.

Running on fumes

What the authors propose is that inhalable anesthetics would be recycled after every use. This would both limit their greenhouse effect in the atmosphere and reduce emissions from manufacturing as lower quantities would be needed overall. They suggest doing this through the use of new vapor-capture technology to harvest, purify, and eventually remarket the anesthetics.

“Our results are an important step in supporting healthcare providers to reduce their carbon footprint. To reduce the carbon footprint of inhalational anesthetics, this study encourages the continued reduction in the use of nitrous oxide and recommends a wider adoption of anesthetic recycling technology,” said lead author Dr. Xiaocheng Hu, of the University of Exeter Medical School.

The study builds on previous analyses around the carbon footprint of inhalable anesthesia including sevoflurane, isoflurane and desflurane, the footprint associated with the use of nitrous oxide, and the carbon footprint of injectable anesthetic Propofol.

Modeling (using typical gas combinations used for anaesthesia in the UK) revealed that sevoflurane and propofol have roughly similar footprints. This likely comes down to the fact that sevoflurane is generally administered mixed with oxygen through a recycling feed. When taking into account their manufacturing processes, however, the carbon footprint of sevoflurane was much higher, similar to that of desflurane. The authors add that nitrous oxide has a disproportionately high effect on the total carbon footprint of anesthesia.

The carrier gases these compounds are delivered in also have an important effect on their final carbon footprint. An air-oxygen mix, according to the team, produces fewer emissions than nitrous oxide. The research showcases why it’s important to consider manufacturing processes as well when calculating a good’s environmental impact. It also goes to show that, at least as far as aesthetics are concerned, this has been underestimated so far.

At the same time, such research might usher in the age of recycled anesthetics — which sounds a bit strange. But hey, if it helps the polar bears, I’ll take it. It’s not like I’m going to feel any difference.

The paper “The carbon footprint of general anaesthetics: A case study in the UK” has been published in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling.

These are the best ways to cut your carbon footprint and reduce emissions

It’s not just about what governments or companies do. Our choices as individuals also matter to tackle the climate emergency. Two-thirds of the global emissions are linked to household consumption, which means low-carbon options have great potential to reduce emissions even further.

Vegan food, one of the ways to reduce your emissions. Credit. Flickr

A new meta-study looked at the emission mitigation potential across the consumption domains of food, housing, transport, and other sectors, reviewing about 7,000 previous publications. This allowed the researchers to make a list of the best ways regular people can reduce their carbon footprint.

Transport options have the highest potential for change, especially if people live car-free, shift to a battery electric vehicle and/or take fewer long-distance flights. Both car and air travel tend to increase sharply with rising income, so these mitigation changes are particularly important in a high-income context.

Living car-free saves an average of 2.04 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per person annually, the study showed. If you still want to drive, using a battery-electric car saves 1.95 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per person annually. Taking one less long-haul flight each year also helps, reducing 1.68 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per person.

Adopting a vegan diet has the biggest impact from a food perspective, the study showed. The way food has been prepared, stored, produced and sourced is also important. Reducing animal-based products in our diet may come with various health improvements, which is an important additional benefit amid the coronavirus crisis.

The lead author, Dr Diana Ivanova from Leeds University, told BBC News: “We need a complete change of mindset. We have to agree how much carbon we can each emit within the limits of what the planet can bear – then make good lives within those boundaries. The top 10 options are available to us now.”

Other actions that we might be more familiar with are also valuable but have a lesser benefit to the climate. This includes green roofs; using less paper; buying more durable items; turning down the thermostat – and recycling, which saves 0.01 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, according to the study.

The average carbon footprint in some continents is more than four times the per person climate target for 2030. Carbon footprints are extremely unequally distributed, with wealthier people and countries releasing more greenhouse gases into the environment, the study showed.

The authors argued that the response to the coronavirus epidemic has shown that people are willing to do radical changes in their lives if they consider it necessary. That has been the case, for example, of most staying at home and not going to work to avoid the spread of the virus.

“The recent coronavirus crisis ‘lockdown’ has shown the world that options such as living car-free are possible and have a huge impact on the environment. This period of low carbon emissions should motivate governments to strive for strong environmental policies that enable new ways of consuming,” Ivanova said.

The study was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Credit: Flickr, Gresham College.

The biggest impact to reducing your carbon footprint is having fewer children

The planet is on the cusp of an environmental disaster due to man-made, carbon-emission-driven climate change. In order to mitigate the damage, all stakeholders need to act with urgency in order to reduce humanity’s carbon footprint to a minimum. While governments and corporations may possess the tools and leverage to organize such a transition, let’s not forget that this crisis is the product of our individual choices, and each one of us must contribute to solving it.

There are 7.7 billion people currently alive on this planet, and they all contribute to global warming — some to a much higher degree than others, generally directly proportionately to their wealth. A recent study looked at a broad range of lifestyle choices and computed how much emissions would be removed from the atmosphere if they were replaced, changed, or done away with altogether. According to the results, the most high-impact actions that any person can take to significantly remove their carbon footprint is to have one fewer child, live car-free, avoid airplane travel, and turn vegetarian, in this order.

The lifestyle choices that shape the planet

In December 2015, 195 nations signed the historic Paris Agreement — an international pact whose ultimate goal is to limit global average temperature increase to ‘well below 2°C’. Almost four years later, the world seems still far away from the path required to reach this goal. The main driver of global warming is the combustion of fossil fuels for energy, so the obvious solution is to transition to 100% renewable energy as soon as possible.

But progress is slow, and most carbon reduction targets pledged as part of the Paris Agreement assume that sometime in the future yet unproven technologies will help nations achieve their climate goals. The problem is that such a dramatic shift in infrastructure and policy cannot take place overnight. It often takes decades to accomplish. However, individual members of society can shift their behavior much faster than infrastructure can. According to a 2015 study, if we’re to avert a climate catastrophe, wealthy, high emitters who are responsible for nearly 50% of emissions might need to drastically change their lifestyle choices.

Seth Wynes, a PhD Candidate at the University of British Columbia, and Kimberly A Nicholas, Associate Professor of Sustainability Sciences at Lund University in Sweden, argue that in the future people might need to “grow accustomed to a lifestyle that approaches the 2.1 tonnes per person annual emissions budget necessary by 2050 to meet the 2 °C climate target.” The two authors of the new study used a life cycle assessment approach — a technique that assesses environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product’s life, from raw material extraction through manufacturing and distribution all the way to disposal or recycling — looking at 148 lifestyle scenarios from 39 sources. The authors focused solely on developed countries, specifically the USA, Australia, Canada, and the EU, due to the higher emission and consumption levels in those regions.

The analysis identified a dozen individual actions which can have a positive climate impact, our of which they recommend four that offer the most substantial magnitude. These are: having one fewer child (an average for developed countries of 58.6 tonnes CO2-equivalent emission reductions per year), living car-free (2.4 tCO2e saved per year), avoiding airplane travel (1.6 tCO2e saved per roundtrip transatlantic flight) and eating a plant-based diet (0.8 tCO2e saved per year).

A comparison of the emissions reductions from various individual actions. The authors of the study classified the actions as high (green), moderate (blue), and low (yellow) impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Credit: Environmental Research Letters.

“While past research has focused on incremental behavioural changes that require minimal effort on the part of individuals, we propose to empower individuals to focus on changing the behaviours that are most effective at reducing their personal emissions. Many of these changes can be seen as desirable choices that promote a slower and healthier lifestyle,” the authors wrote in their study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

The authors say that adolescents are the most prepared to make the shift since they have the freedom to make important behavioral choices that can structure the rest of their lives. Adults, on the other hand, have more inertia in life, which can make changing their lifestyle seem too much like a sacrifice. What’s more, the authors write, adolescents can also act as catalysts for change in a household. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we can’t all play an important role.

“In addition to adolescents, it would also be beneficial for those who are already willing to make impactful lifestyle changes for the sake of the climate to be aware of which actions will be most effective.”

Millennials are already willing to shift their lifestyles to be more environmentally friendly. Younger generations in the United States have lower car ownership and, at the very least, delay car use compared to older generations. They’re also more willing to eat less meat to become vegetarians. For instance, in 2014, 400 million fewer animals were killed for food because young Americans chose to eat less meat.

“These suggestions contrast with other top recommendations found in the literature such as hang-drying clothing or driving a more fuel-efficient vehicle. Our results show that education and government documents do not focus on high-impact actions for reducing emissions, creating a mitigation gap between official recommendations and individuals willing to align their behaviour with climate targets. Focusing on high-impact actions (through providing accurate guidance and information, especially to ‘catalytic’ individuals such as adolescents) could be an important dimension of scaling bottom-up action to the transformative decarbonisation implied by the 2 °C climate target, and starting to close this gap.”

New study maps Europe’s regional carbon footprints, helps us understand how to reduce emissions

The study showed how different regions in the European Union fared, often differing significantly from the country average.

The average household carbon footprint for different EU regions. The UK has among the largest carbon footprints of any European country. Graphic: Environmental Research Letters.

When we talk about emissions or carbon footprint, we often refer to things like “the average American” or the “average German household,” but we all know how much things can vary from area to area, or even from city to city. Just look at the US, for instance. Right after President Trump announced his intention to exit the Paris Agreement, 257 mayors representing 59 million Americans expressed the opposite. They reiterated their commitment to the Paris ideals and vowed to stay on track with environmental investments.

Elsewhere, in Europe, who could compare the north of Italy, heavily industrialized and drastically polluted, with the much poorer and crime-ridden, yet greener south of the country? Looking at the country level simply doesn’t tell the whole story, and researchers wanted to change that. In “Mapping the carbon footprint of EU regions,” first author Diana Ivanova and her colleagues mapped the carbon footprints for 177 regions in 27 EU countries, creating the continent’s most detailed map of its kind. They also carried out a similar analysis for the regional water and land usage, which you can see here.

Cutting emissions

The point of this map is not only to help us better understand the distribution of greenhouse gas emissions but also to help us reduce emissions. Even the Paris Agreement features national contributions, not regional contributions. It’s up to every country to decide how it will reach their individual goal. The EU also sets national policy targets but as Ivanova puts it, we need “a finer spatial dimension of consumption-related and environmental information that moves beyond national averages.”

But this analysis doesn’t only go into regional detail, it also shows the greater picture, which is also extremely important. Let’s say that one country wants to reduce its emissions, and it wants to do so by moving a car factory outside its borders. Sure, that might help reduce its own emission, but in the grand scheme of things it just doesn’t do anything. It might actually do more harm than good.

“If we started importing cars instead of producing them domestically, there may be a drop in country-wide emissions, but the consumption emissions may stay the same — or even increase, depending on the production efficiency,” Ivanova said.

This is why it’s important not only to understand who emits how much, but to always keep an international perspective, encouraging real, sustainable improvements. It’s the embodiment of the “Think global, act local” mantra.

Rich cities, lots of emissions

Of course, if you’d overlay this map to a GDP map, you’d see lots of similarities. Money and CO2 emissions often go hand in hand.

“It makes sense that the richer you are, the greater your purchasing power and the environmental impacts associated with it,” she said. “And the richer you are, the more you fly and drive.”

But this is not necessarily the case, especially in modern times. Renewables are becoming cost-competitive with fossil fuels, and many rich cities are encouraging healthy and sustainable habits. In Germany, Hamburg wants to become car-less in 20 years. In Italy, Milan and Rome are introducing partial car bans to fight rampaging pollution. The age when higher GDP meant more emissions has steadily passed, and economic growth has decoupled from economic growth. More and more, it’s our personal habits and our sources of energy that influence our carbon footprint.

“Different factors influence the way we consume,” she said. “In our study, income appears to explain much of the variation in the regional factors, so essentially if we know how income changes over time, we can hypothesize about how emissions would follow.”

Everyone has to eat

Indeed, Ivanova and her colleagues looked at many individual aspects, finding interesting, though not surprising, differences. For instance, when they looked at emissions from the purchases of clothing, services and manufactured products, Italy and parts of the UK, especially London, had some of the highest emissions. After all, that’s what you’d expect from two of the biggest fashion centers of the world.

But when it came to food consumption, things were largely uniform — everyone has to eat.

But this doesn’t mean that what you eat doesn’t play a key role in our footprint. As we’ve discussed many times before, meat especially plays a huge role in our society’s emissions. In all likelihood, reducing your meat consumption is one of the single most important things you can do in terms of sustainability. So this doesn’t mean that all people eat and what you eat doesn’t matter — instead, it means that both poorer and richer areas host people who are conscious of what they eat, and people who don’t.

To clear this and many other questions, researchers now want to go even deeper. They want to look at all the possible details. For instance, even when discussing something as simple as cheese, things can get quite complex. From the grains the cow is fed, to the conditions the cow is kept in, the fabrication process, the packaging, and then the delivery — it all adds up, and it’s all important. This is what Ivanova wants to clear out in her future work.

“The story of the cheese gets pretty complex, as you can imagine, and every stage comes with environmental impacts,” she said. “We are limited in the detail with which we can explore the global economy and the journey of products.”