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Let’s look at an interesting element of technical solutions (such as carbon capture) that companies could end up getting dinged for: secondary impacts. Newton’s Third Law (with some poetic license) holds true in environmental solutions – a solution that solves one problem may create a secondary problem.

What is a “secondary impact”? In my view, a secondary impact is a meaningful environmental effect (or risk) that is created as a result of the intended benefit. Two examples of this are:

  • I once visited a client site that had spent quite a bit of money to reduce their Scope 2 emissions (those that are associated with power purchased from the utility). The centerpiece of the reduction strategy was an on-site company owned and operated fuel cell. What the company had overlooked is that the fuel cell chemistry resulted in CO2 emissions that drastically increased the site’s Scope 1 (direct) emissions. I don’t recall the absolute emissions numbers and whether this resulted in an overall CO2 emissions reduction given the electricity production, but it had a real impact on how emissions were reported.
  • An article on the Japan shipping industry’s evaluation of capturing and converting CO2 into methane as a fuel points out implementing the technology “would mean developing special vessels to transport the CO2. Key to commercialization would be the viability of shipping CO2 long distances.” So… transporting large volumes of CO2 in ocean vessels to reduce CO2 emissions from other ocean vessels? That’s a head scratcher.

This article from the Yale School of Environment also describes negative latent impacts of large scale tree planting.

… planting programs, especially those based on large numerical targets, can wreck natural ecosystems, dry up water supplies, damage agriculture, push people off their land — and even make global warming worse.

Unintended consequences can also show up as product issues that affect the business. More examples:

  • Increasing the water recycling/reuse rate at one paper mill I audited years ago saved water and money, but made the paper turn brown. The mill was unable to remedy the problem and ended up reducing their water reuse.
  • In order to reduce waste and save on raw material costs, one company dramatically increased their used product recovery and repair rates. Because the used products had to be washed before being put back into circulation, the more they upped their recovery, the more water they used.

The moral of the story is that companies should thoroughly evaluate identified solutions in advance. Use a wide angle “life cycle” view to eliminate surprises – and encourage directors to ask difficult questions.

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The Editor

Lawrence Heim has been practicing in the field of ESG management for almost 40 years. He began his career as a legal assistant in the Environmental Practice of Vinson & Elkins working for a partner who is nationally recognized and an adjunct professor of environmental law at the University of Texas Law School. He moved into technical environmental consulting with ENSR Consulting & Engineering at the height of environmental regulatory development, working across a range of disciplines. He was one… View Profile