Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Impact Costs

One way to account for human and resource impacts is to include them additively in the costs of products.

Resource impacts in particular could be assessed by assigning a monetary value to the sum of the biosphere processing and damage to the biosphere by materials that it can’t use (so-called “artificial” compounds). For sustainability, these costs would need to be paid back over the lifetime of the product, by renewing resources and repairing damage.

Biosphere processing is perhaps the easiest to measure. The global ecological footprint is the amount of equivalent land used by the biosphere to both regenerate resources and process waste. If we use the current cost of a kilowatt-hour of grid generated electricity as a standard, then the highest additional biosphere cost (in the U.S.) is for a person-hour of airplane travel ($33), and the second highest is for a pound of wool clothing ($21). For food, beef incurs the highest cost per pound consumed ($10), with fish a close second ($7). For household services, we would need to add more than 30% to the cost of entertainment, use of telephones and other electronic equipment, and insurance. Even our waste disposal would carry a cost, with aluminum the highest at $6 per pound. A gallon of liquid oil is the most expensive fuel, at 24 cents per pound, followed by fire wood at 17 cents per pound.

Biosphere damage is perhaps best measured by cleanup costs associated with toxic pollution. This has been a primary focus of environmental laws and related technology.

Human impacts can most crudely be measured by changes in lifespan or happiness, with infrastructure creation and maintenance added in (to some extent, this latter cost is borne by government, which is funded by all of us).

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