This impact story is from our 2018 annual report.
In today’s globalized economy what we consume is often linked with environmental and social impacts scattered around the world, out of our sight. SEI has been at the forefront of attempts to improve our understanding of the scale and nature of these impacts and how they link back to consumption. Much of this work has coalesced around the SEI Initiative on Producer to Consumer Sustainability.
A recent example is PRINCE. In 2018 the PRINCE project delivered a set of new consumption-based environmental macro-indicators to the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), along with fresh insights into Sweden’s international consumption footprint that could inform a range of policy areas.
The Generational Goal
The main impetus behind PRINCE was the uniquely ambitious goal of Swedish environmental policy: to hand over to the next generation a society in which the major environmental problems have been solved, without exacerbating environmental and health problems outside Sweden’s borders.
The EPA and the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management (SwAM) tasked the consortium of European researchers behind PRINCE with developing indicators that would allow direct comparisons between consumption impacts inside and outside Sweden’s borders, crucial information for following up on the Generational Goal.
Central to most of the indicators developed by the project is a tailor-made model that tracks flows of commodities through the global economy. It then translates these flows into environmental pressures, based on knowledge of current practices and technologies in the different countries and world regions where goods and services consumed in Sweden are produced. These pressures are then allocated to 59 categories of goods and services consumed in Sweden and to different types of consumption: expenditure by private households, by the public sector, and in the form of capital investments.
This PRINCE model links high-quality Swedish statistics on industrial activity and environmental performance with a well-recognized multiregional input-output (MRIO) model, EXIOBASE3, which makes it possible to account for environmental pressures along the different stages of Sweden’s international supply chains. This simple, easily updated methodology could easily be replicated by other similar economies wishing to track their consumption impacts. SEI led a project within PRINCE that helped to identify the best modelling approach to use.
The new model revealed rich detail about a variety of environmental pressures from Swedish consumption and how they are distributed among 48 countries or regions and 59 categories of products consumed in Sweden. The results showed, for example, that around two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions due to Swedish consumption occur outside Sweden, and that food, private transport, and construction (of buildings and infrastructure) are the product groups most responsible.
Exploring new indicators
The PRINCE team also looked at how to measure different environmental pressures not covered by EXIOBASE or other consumption-based accounting. With the help of SEI expertise on chemicals management, PRINCE generated the world’s first aggregate chemicals footprints: indicating the overall impacts of hazardous chemicals along Sweden’s supply chains. The results showed, for example, that 75–95% of the pesticide and veterinary antibiotic use in Sweden’s consumption footprint is associated with imported foods, mostly from Europe but also from South America.
Another case study led by SEI developed a new way of allocating emissions from maritime shipping to commodities, countries and companies – potentially breaking a logjam that has kept shipping emissions out of international climate deals.
Other SEI-led studies made major advances in the science of consumption-based accounting, for example on impacts of commercial sea fishing, on more responsive water footprinting, on linking consumption back to specific production regions.
“The goal is to develop tools that Swedish authorities can use to track the environmental burden of Swedish consumption.”
—Swedish Environmental Protection Agency
From measurement to impact
The PRINCE model is now being used to generate Sweden’s official consumption-based greenhouse gas and carbon emissions statistics. According to the Swedish EPA, “The EPA and SwAM will work further with the results. The goal is to develop tools that Swedish authorities can use to track the environmental burden imposed by Swedish consumption.”
The detail the PRINCE model provides on how emissions are linked to different product groups, producer countries, and consumer groups in Sweden has enormous potential to inform policy in areas like trade, industry, agriculture and a range of government services. SEI is downscaling PRINCE data to strengthen its own footprinting tools for Sweden.
While PRINCE was focused on Sweden, many of its innovations could help other countries to measure and manage their consumption footprints. The PRINCE work has been presented in a number of academic conferences and forums, as well as to international statistical networks such as IAEG-SDGs, the UN group developing indicators for the Sustainable Development Goals.
Sustainable consumption and production
Production and consumption are the basis of the economy. They are also the main ways in which humans affect their environment. SEI seeks to understand how production and consumption are connected, how they impact the natural world and people in other countries, and how they can be made more sustainable.
Connecting to the SDGs
PRINCE helped Swedish policy-makers better understand the environmental pressures – within and beyond Sweden’s borders – that result from consumption in Sweden. It produced new indicators for greenhouse gas emissions (SDG 13: Climate action), but also for air pollutants, such as PM2.5, and hazardous chemicals with potentially grave health impacts (SDG 3: Good health and well-being).
PRINCE’s work on the implications of food consumption, in particular, highlighted its potential impacts on both life on land (SDG 15) and life below water (SDG 14).