In 2008 Ecuador passed changes to its Constitution to create “rights of nature” provisions that conferred legal rights to rivers, forests and other ecosystems.
Until recently they have been mostly symbolic. But late last year, Ecuador’s top court changed that, finding that mining in a protected region of the Ecuadorian rainforest violated the rights of nature and instructed mining leases already granted in a protected nature reserve to be withdrawn.
In 2009 Bolivia granted nature positive rights – that is, rights to something specific (restoration, regeneration, respect).and anyone can go to court to protect them. In 2020 The European Parliament passed a law that granted legal status to ecosystems and there are currently 47 separate initiatives underway within the EU community seeking to recognize the Rights of Nature.
In 2014, New Zealand, passed laws granting both the Whanganui River and the Te Urewera Forest region, legal personhood. That means the river and forest can act as a person in a court of law; they have legal standing and specified guardian who can sue on behalf of these natural systems. Similarly in 2017, the Ganges River in India was granted full human rights.
In 2021, the Disgupta Review of ‘The Economics of Biodiversity’ undertaken for the UK Government recognised and emphasised that biodiversity underpins all economic activity and is the largest contributor to National GDP and must be protected. In Australia, the Australian Earth Laws Alliance (AELA) is a national not-for-profit organisation that carries the mission to increase the understanding and practical implementation of Earth centred governance in Australia.
These are world leading and in a global context, increasingly important initiatives throughout the world that recognise the critical importance of preserving and restoring nature and natural systems.
There is also a global movement that recognises the importance of natural systems in the context of modern manufacturing and consumption more broadly.
The Circular Economy Movement.
The Circular Economy (CE) movement seeks to create circular material flows within the economy to e.g., reduce plastics pollution due to excess consumption and overcome our inability to deal with its effects, like landfills full to overflowing, mounds of unused recyclates, and an almost unfettered flow of waste into the environment.
The world’s leading proponent of CE is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and in ‘Towards the Circular Economy, Volume 1, 2012’ it says:
Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural, and social capital. A Circular Economy is based on three principles:
- Design out waste and pollution;
- Keep products and materials in use;
- Regenerate natural systems. (this author’s emphasis).
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Material Circularity Indicator (MCI) has been developed by an international group of high level industry experts and focussing on products, measures the extent to which “linear materials flow has been minimised and ‘restorative flow’ (again, this author’s emphasis) maximised for its component materials, and how long and intensively it is used compared to a similar industry-average product”.
The MCI is essentially constructed from a combination of three product characteristics:
- mass of virgin raw material used in manufacture;
- mass of unrecoverable waste that is attributed to the product; &
- utility factor that accounts for the length & intensity of product’s use.
As you will notice though, these factors consider only materiality and resources. There are apparently no natural systems metrics, or human or environmental toxicity factors considered in the MCI indicator. A perfect MCI circularity score of ‘1’, in effect means the resources are circulating perfectly, and effectively assumes no damage was done in creating the resource in the beginning and ignores any more damage to nature that is done to keep those resources in use.
In reality, each cycle of re-manufacture, transporting, re-packaging, use and end of life collection and eventual re-processing, creates additional damage and climate altering emissions on top of the impacts of extracting, concentrating, processing, and manufacturing the original raw materials and products.
As a result, recycled products, especially those with geographically dispersed collection networks or specialist recovery processes, can sometimes come with higher embodied impacts than the original virgin materials. To consider a reduction in resource use ‘restorative’ or more extreme still ‘regenerative’ is to misunderstand or misconstrue both these terms.
It is important to understand that regenerating and restoring natural systems is essential but doing ‘Less bad’ does not equal the ‘Regenerating natural systems’ or indeed the ‘restorative flow’ aims of CE used alternatively in different parts of Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s materials. In fact, the Material Circularity indicator directly and explicitly equates ‘100% material circularity’ with ‘100% restorative’ as can be seen from the ‘Product Utility’ graph below, which obviously is not the case if we take a natural systems perspective. Indeed, nothing could be further from the truth.
Restorative processes need to:
- put more back than is taken out, whether that be minerals, water, oxygen, topsoil, etc.;
- remove existing pollution including climate damaging gases,
- take barren ground and re-wild it, i.e., improve biodiversity of all types, at all levels;
- facilitate natural systems recovery and be willing to stand back and allow nature to work.
‘Regeneration’ takes restoration to a whole new level. According to regenerative design guru Bill Reed, Principal of US firm Regenisis, regenerative design uses “the health of ecological systems as a basis for design” and requires not only difference in the level of scale of operation, but also the way we think (at a whole systems level) but also the way we relate to nature. Regeneration requires us to become one with nature, facilitating natural systems in a way that consider a different scale, typically bioregional, and frames and understands living system interrelationships in an integrated way. Regeneration therefore is something that is difficult to achieve at a product level alone.
“Regeneration of the health of the humans and local earth systems is an interactive process – each supports the other in a mutually beneficial way. This awareness or consciousness of vital and viable interrelationship is the beginning of a whole system healing process.
Bill Reed, Regenesis,
From ‘Shifting from ‘sustainability’ to regeneration’.”
Place-based thinking is helpful in understanding how scale is important. Restoration can happen at a project level but regeneration is more about ecosystems as a whole, and typically requires bioregional or at least watershed level consideration, that usually extends beyond site boundaries. Trying to tie these processes back to a product level means engaging a different way of thinking and measuring. We need to think at a systems level and within the scope of the assessment measure all impacts and benefits of raw materials, products and systems. But the question is “how?” and if there are outstanding impacts, what can we do to ensure these can be cycled back into a Nature Positive outcome?
We have already seen that way the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Material Circularity Tool that the Green Building Council of Australia has also used to sculpt the Circular Economy Pilot credit in its newly introduced in 2022 Green Star® ‘Buildings’ rating tool around, measures circularity by considering only the mass of virgin raw materials used in manufacture; the unrecoverable waste that is attributed to the product; and the utility factor that accounts for the length & intensity of product’s use. These are fine for looking purely at the effectiveness of material resource circularity. But this is far from the whole picture needed. We need to be able to capture and measure all impacts and benefits systemically in meaningful, holistic and scientific ways.
Typically when we think of how to measure impacts of products and projects, we think of using life cycle analysis or LCA or asking for an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD). EPDs are a summary LCA report prepared in accordance with specific EN and/or ISO standards and they convey the life cycle impact analysis outcomes of the study and other key parameters such as scope and boundaries of the study for use in project level LCA processes that aggregate the data of many EPDs into a ‘whole building LCA’ typically (and as in the case of GBCA’s Green Star® rating tools) to show by percentage calculation (targeting 10-30%) how the ’Upfront Carbon’ impact of a building has been reduced compared to a benchmark building and standardised set of materials.
LCA typically considers impacts as negative impacts and only recently has begun the process of opening up to the need for carbon positive metrics and has begun measuring carbon sink potential of products. But if you ask a typical LCA practitioner to produce an LCA of a tree they would find it difficult to impossible using the metrics and indicators currently using within the industry. An EPD for a Tree? Prepared in accordance with ISO 14025 or EN15804? Impossible with current indicators.
A different set of indicators is needed obviously. A set of Life Cycle Benefit Analysis (LCBA) indicators that incorporate climate braking (carbon sink) metrics would also include indicators like ‘water and oxygen generation’, ‘water and air cleansing’, ‘retained microbe, bird, bee and native animal forage’ etc. Together LCA and LCBA can adequately measure and report on not just a natural system like a tree, but also the environment impacts and benefits of systemic cycling and upcycling of materials. That said, even together they do not currently articulate the specific circularity of materials in isolation (this may change in future).
Whatsmore, while LCA is really good at measuring systemic and generalised impacts, it uses both highly specialised and very broad indicators that in some instances are too broad for practical use in CE product assessment, e.g. the impacts of toxicity on human health, is measured in ‘Disability Adjusted Life Years’ or DALYs. DALYs are a measure that equates toxicity impacts of only the main chemicals in a product to the carcinogenic impacts of a single proxy chemical, are so broad as to almost miss the point.
How does one equate compounds that cause cancer to those that don’t but are still variously genetics altering, endocrine disrupting, or create in-utero effects on the unborn? Whatsmore the typical ‘cut-off’ figure for LCA is 1.0%, (considered the point at which material changes are unlikely to affect the outcome). How does one deal with products that contain highly toxic ‘Substances of Very High Concern’ (SVHCs), ‘Persistent Organic Pollutants’ (POPs) or other compounds that can kill or irrevocably alter lives at levels well below 1.0%, if they have been excluded from the study under ‘cutoff’ rules to begin with? A CE requires products made with biological components to be cycled back into another biological cycle and this is not even possible if some of these SVHCs, POPs or other problematic compounds are included above 0.01% or even 0.001%. That is why most ecolabels ban all such ingredients at any levels above their declaration thresholds. LCA is also not so good at measuring impacts on biodiversity, for the same reasons.
From this author’s point of view, measuring CE requires a broader scope and set of indicators that can measure Nature Positive outcomes as well as impacts and material circularity. Measurement of complete CE outcomes necessitate a combination of indicators including:
- Material Circularity: such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s MCI tool;
- Detailed Human and Environmental Toxicity Hazard: that includes risk assessment;
- Biodiversity Impact Assessment;
- Life Cycle Analysis; including
- Climate Impact/Climate Positive: including carbon sink and % savings indicators;
- Life Cycle Benefit Analysis such as that from the Evah Institute; and
- Ethical Supply Chains.
Together these metrics reflect the full scope of the measures need to ensure that the heavy push towards CE translates into metrics that support Designers and Investors in a sustainable future to identify and choose more Nature Positive products and not just those supporting reduced recycling costs and more efficient re-use of waste materials. The data behind these various metrics is commonly available (albeit to different degrees) within the market from manufacturers’ and ecolabel programs’ internal databases currently and they need to increasingly and more transparently be made available for use by design, construction and ESG teams across the entire economy.
Once measured we also then need to think beyond the ‘Carbon Offsets’ we have known to date, because to move products into nature positive realms they need to be linked to bioregional scale regeneration initiatives as the only real way to mitigate pre-existing and new net-impacts.
Unfortunately, some offsets have come in for valid criticism of late, but we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater’ so to speak. Renewable energy is now the basis of ‘business as usual’ offsets but given it is also now the cheapest form of new electrical energy provision it should be minimised for off-site offsets in future as private investment is already massively flowing into that sector for economic reasons alone. To make the connection between products and truly nature restorative outcomes we need to be connecting products to offsets connected to large-scale ecosystem level projects generating on-site or off-site complex biodiversity regeneration outcomes such as those employed by organisations like Greenfleet, Greening Australia, Landcare Australia and Climate Positive among others.
The success of these offsets measured using the indicators above, would over time, demonstrate that the Nature Positive outcomes intended to offset the ongoing impacts of CE processes are indeed delivered, and have created the Nature Positive CE outcomes that eventually support the flourishing of all life forms on our amazing blue planet.
Author: David Baggs
Voted one of Australia’s Top 50 Green Leaders and Top 100 Sustainability Leaders Globally, David is a world-renowned sustainability and materials expert, Life Fellow of the Australian Institute of Architects, award winning green building architect, author, Lead Auditor, GBCA Panel member and Past President of ALCAS the Australian Life Cycle Assessment Society.
He is Program Director of the Global GreenTagCertTM Ecolabel, Certification and Transparency Declaration Programs that include Detailed Human and Environmental Toxicity Hazard; Biodiversity Impact assessment; Life Cycle Analysis; Climate Impact assessment, and Life Cycle Benefit Analysis among other services including ethical supply chain and product level Modern Slavery Declaration transparency reporting.
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