blue and yellow graph on stock market monitor

A world haunted by the spectre of a seemingly never-ending pandemic has been mobilizing trillions of US-dollars to prop up its ailing economies. Now, as a historically unprecedented roll out of vaccines raises the hopes of a swift end to the tragedy, further fiscal and monetary tools are being deployed to path the way for a swift and – at least so it is being heralded by the general chorus – sustainable recovery. Indeed, “building back better” has become a catch phrase in political circles, not only here, but also overseas. Many governments around the world have yet to deliver on their promises and pledges, though. Otherwise, we risk squandering a – what is likely to be a – once-in-a-generation opportunity to create an environmentally, socially and economically more sustainable production and consumption system.

Indeed, we risk missing out on a unique opportunity to avert an even greater threat to mankind than Covid-19, i.e. global warming, while tackling not only those economic challenges that have been caused, directly or indirectly, by the pandemic, but also those that have been undermining the long-term sustainability of the economic system well before the advent of the crisis. For decades, the working and middle classes in Western societies have been suffering from stagnating or even declining disposable incomes. Secular shifts in the economy have led to a greater concentration of the upside of any economic activity, while its cost and downside risk is increasingly being borne by the broad masses. Major calamities such as the 2008-9 Financial and Economic Crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic have further aggravated this situation as the quantity and quality of income prospects have declined in the wake of major layoffs, restructuring, fixed-term contracts, and misguided austerity policies, while the tab that the taxpayer had to pick up in the form of bailouts has increased manifold. The rise of parties on both extremes on the political spectrum over the last couple of years pointed already to some of the major rifts caused by such developments to the fabric of society. These are only to worsen unless the underlying disequilibria are not appropriately addressed. The economic system itself suffers from such disequilibria, because a severely weakened consumption sector cannot support the demand required for economic growth, and we cannot borrow from the future indefinitely.

In other words, the world is currently facing multiple, yet interlinked, challenges that require a well-coordinated, multi-dimensional, systemic approach (i.e., a focus on illusory one-dimensional metrics such as GDP and the current performance of major stock market indices simply won’t do(!)). The urgency of these matters, and the window of opportunity afforded by the current political situation makes immediate action imperative, while their nature necessitates that we get it immediately right to minimise the chance and negative impacts of any unintended consequences. Let’s begin with surveying the current situation: The full economic damage inflicted by the Covid-19 pandemic needs yet to be fully determined. Recent estimates put the figure for the economic contraction at around 3.5% (IMF, 2021). Further, amidst widespread business closures and extensive job losses, poverty increased for the first time in over two decades (UNDP, 2020), while income and wealth disparities has skyrocketed. So, what has been done so far to address the situation? The world’s fifty largest economies have pledged around USD14.6tn (excl. the commitments by the EC; if those were included, total spending would approach USD17tn) in fiscal measures since 2020, of which approximately USD 11.1tn have been directed to more immediate economic support efforts, while USD1.9tn has been pledged to long-term recovery measures. Findings by Oxford University suggest, however, that only a very small percentage of that spending is likely to promote climate-friendly economic growth (e.g., only 18% of recovery spending and 2.5% of total announced spending is estimated to reduce GHG emissions). It seems, that the world is squandering a major opportunity to transition to an environmentally sustainable growth path. It might also be forfeiting economically attractive investment opportunities, as a growing body of evidence (e.g., Hepburn et al., 2020), suggests that ‘green’ fiscal spending can deliver stronger economic returns than traditional spending alternatives.

The thinking of decision-makers thus seems to be stuck in those type of old, one-dimensional patterns that have traditionally focused on the maximisation of some – entirely inadequate – metric such as GDP growth or the recent surge of some major stock market index that even fail to accurately gauge the state of the economy itself, never mind the state of our society and of the environment.

Supported by the IMF and GIZ, Oxford University, UNEP and their partners have made an important first step toward addressing this one-dimensional and short-termist approach that risks further exacerbating socio-economic and environmental crises long-term through the creation of the Global Recovery Observatory, which aims to significantly increase the transparency of such policy decisions by tracking the fiscal rescue and recovery spending programs of the world’s fifty largest economies. The greater transparency will hopefully push governments around the world to adopt the type of longer-term and systemic approach that is urgently required if we want to successfully navigate the treacherous waters between Scylla and Charybdis in order to meet the long-term economic, social and environmental objectives in alignment with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the UNFCCC Paris Agreement.

Greater (financial) commitments and pledges will, however, not suffice to ensure a successful transition. It is crucial to thoroughly understand the nature and dimension of the task at hand: The cyclopean task involves no less than the restructuring of major parts of the production and consumption system as we know it, a system that has evolved under the pressures and incentives of the purely economic imperative created by the respective socio-technical and institutional frameworks. No financial or technological silver bullet solution exists for the problems that the world is currently facing. In fact, technological solution in the cleantech sector might even face major uphill battles as they are often targeting large, well-established markets (e.g., energy markets) that are dominated by powerful companies with vested interests. Further, the risks associated with the development and commercialization of such technologies are often too great for the private sector to assume, particularly as their introduction often requires significant complementary and add-on investments, e.g., infrastructure. For instance, electric cars need a network of charging stations. Besides, these assets are not always of a tangible nature. Sometimes, significant investments in intangibles are required that only the public sector might be capable to stem (e.g., research funding) and to protect (e.g., via patent laws). Also, the existing institutional framework might be underdeveloped. The transition therefore won’t occur through market forces alone. In fact, in several instances, markets might have to be created in the first instance (e.g., feed-in tariffs in the early stages of solar energy). The role that the state needs to play for this transition to be successful will therefore extend beyond its role as a provider of money and lender of last resort. It needs to play a greater role in coordinating the activities of the relevant stakeholders, to support the development and commercialization of new technologies, to assume risks where necessary, to create new markets where required, to tackle market failure and to ensure an equitable distribution of the economic benefits of the transition.

Written by Dr. Norman Ebner, CRES strategic advisor

Testing Barriers Slow Sustainable Electronics Production (Part 4) – How can we speed up testing?

mechanical engineer soldering in workshop

If you didn’t catch the previous parts of this series on what electronic tests are and how they relate to sustainability, you can find the first part here! (No really, you’ll be very confused if you read this article otherwise 😁).

But as quick refresher: improved technology is the key to sustainability–from energy-efficient LEDs to environmentally-friendly batteries! But many tests are needed to improve technology and these should look for ‘failure modes’ (the events that lead to electronics breaking), using tests that speed up both burn-in and lifetime under different (usually harsh) conditions. For example, you might run a burn-in test for an integrated circuit chip (computer chip) at 130°C instead of 25°C (even though most computers are probably stored at room temperature instead of 130°C).

There is now a variety of tests used by the industry to test the durability and longevity of their products, such as: Highly Accelerated Stress Test (HAST); Highly Accelerated Lifetime Test (HALT); High Temperature Operating Life (HTOL) Test; Accelerated Lifetime Test, etc. All these tests follow the same principle: the worse the conditions, the faster the degradation. The issue is figuring out how to balance the test accuracy, making sure not to create unrealistic conditions that may not apply to reality. For example, solar panels need to absorb sunlight, and for higher efficiency they need to reflect very little sunlight. To achieve that solar panels must be treated with special antireflective coatings. The coating under intense heat should be able to perform, but at the same time it has to deal with the pressures of cracking, atomic defects, rain, snow, and… bird poo!! How do you go about including all those things in your testing standard??? This is why testing standard organisations exist, like the International Standards Organisation (ISO), the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), the Deutsches Institut für Normung (DIN). These organisations have hundreds of committees with experts who have decades of industry experience that decide the specific test requirements for any electronic part (from batteries to supercapacitors to hard drives and beyond).

No really… Polly has NOT been very nice to solar panels (Public Domain)

Keep in mind that these standards aren’t regulations. Manufacturers just use them to show their products’ quality. But test are costly, and as a result manufacturers use some sort of statistical/simulation-based tools to predict the test outcome early. These types of tools are called ‘prognostics’. Many companies are now developing prognostics to estimate the health of electric vehicle batteries after they’ve been in use. This is especially used when products reach the end of their first lifecycle, in order to predict the possibility and potential efficiency of entering into a second lifecycle (e.g. reusing batteries, or parts of bulky electrical equipment such as laundry machines or fridges).

Prognostic tests can be based on statistical simulations. These statistical models find relationships between data and can extrapolate specific relationships between variables, analyse special statistical distributions like the Weibull distribution, and even use machine learning techniques to classify and forecast data. Still, not all tests and electronics will be ‘fixable’ with statistical prognostics alone. For example, some types of electronic products don’t have ANY failure modes that show up for a certain period of time (longer than 100 hours) (e.g., electrical grid components, like insulated transformers / power cables that often withhold their performance for YEARS). Though burn-in tests for 100 hours would catch defective units for many types of electronics, this means some types of important sustainable technology would need even longer burn-in tests.

This pretty much eliminates any type of statistical model where you want to collect some data and then extrapolate a curve of fit forward to predict results.

If you’ve ever seen equipment at electricity stations with those tower-y spirals (transformer ‘bushings’) at the top, those are transformers. (Public Domain)

There’s also another issue with using statistical prognostics to develop sustainable electronics faster. Some electronics won’t have quantifiable data that you can use for statistical modelling solutions. Two reasons for this are that quantifiable test standards haven’t been developed or the electronic product is too complicated.

For instance, test standards for optical coatings in fibre-optic networks (ie. high-speed Internet) have only been around for about 45 years. Coatings are tested to make sure they can resist scratches and don’t easily come off things they’re applied to (like mirrors and lenses). These tests take hundreds to thousands of hours and some parts are quantifiable (ex. 1000 hours at 85°C and 85% humidity). But other parts are just mere ‘visual’ checks: rub a cheesecloth against a coating 50 times and see if you have scratches. It’s hard to gather data about the effect of cheesecloth rubs though. So statistical models aren’t easy to build here.

In contrast, integrated circuit chips (computer chips) have had testing standards since the 1970s. But each chip has billions of transistors (electronic switches to let current pass through), capacitors (electronic devices to store static charge), and other components. How do you test if one of them is broken? No magical engineering solutions here, unfortunately. Instead, engineers create what are called ‘test patterns’. These are basically different input, output pairs to test on the computer chip. If you input data and get the expected output, the individual computer chip is working. For example, you could write data to the computer chip and then read it back. If the data you read isn’t what you tried to write, you know the computer chip didn’t save the data properly.

BUT data saved isn’t really a ‘physics’ variable that we can quantifiably test like with other electronics. And even if we tried to test variables like temperature, current, etc. — which of the billions of components in a chip do you take readings from?? This is why statistical models are also hard to build here.

In both cases, though, there is an option for carrying out measurements. Instead of collecting data from optical coatings or computer chips, you collect data from the machines that make them. And you use different data from the factory production environment to optimise the production process and MAYBE make some predictions about the functionality of individual batches of electronics. There are companies working on this very complicated approach. But especially with newer sustainable technology (ex: new types of energy storage electronics or energy production electronics), there’s a lot of potential for new growth!

Certainly, there’s a lot of innovation to be had in creating more sustainable technology for the future… but better testing technology is the pre-requisite to unlocking that innovation!

If you have any questions about this article, feel free to email Voltx’s cofounders: Alishba Imran or Shagun Maheshwari!

Thank you to: 🙏

  • Dr. Jeff Jones from the IEC. I wouldn’t have understood the connections between different electronic products without you!
  • Dr. Darayus Patel from the Nanyang Technological University. I’m grateful for all your enthusiastic support in breaking down semiconductor fabrication with me!
  • Dr. Stefaan Vandendriessche from Edmund Optics. I couldn’t have imagined the issues with testing optical coatings without your tip!
  • Dr. Robert Herrick from Intel. I’m amazed by all your selfless support in answering my endless questions about the optoelectronics industry!

Written by Madhav Malhotra, a 17-year-old developer, designer, and entrepreneur-in-training. To find out more about the author, please visit https://www.madhavmalhotra.com/

Testing Barriers Slow Sustainable Electronics Production (Part 3) – Why does EVERY electronic have slow testing?

macro shot of water drops on leaf

If you didn’t catch the previous parts of this series on what electronic tests are and how they relate to sustainability, you can find the first part here! (No really, otherwise you’ll be very confused if you read this article otherwise 😁).

To briefly summarise: improved technology is the key to sustainability–from energy-efficient LEDs to environmentally-friendly batteries! But many tests are needed to improve technology and they look for complicated ‘failure modes’ (the events that lead to electronics breaking).

Given all these unique types of tests, why did I claim up above that ‘EVERY’ electronic has slow testing? Well, ‘EVERY’ electronic from tiny batteries to giant power cables has two important (but slow) types of tests: accelerated lifetime testing and burn-in testing. As I explained in the first article, these tests are often done by manipulating the exact same variables: temperature, humidity, current, and/or voltage higher and performance over time.

To make it less theoretical, I’ll talk about lifetime testing.

Let’s say you’re a brilliant, laser in a LiDAR sensors that many automated electric vehicles rely on to enable cleaner transportation. You are about to be tested to see if you work! You will be subjected to a 75°C temperature (with all your other laser friends) and see how long it takes you to break. Here’s what I’d see:

Figure 1 Lasers’ performance over time under testing conditions. (Adapted from Lawrence A. Johnson, ILX Lightwave, 2006)

This is a curve like many others in electronics testing. It shows how variable X increases and/or decreases as the time variable increases and a device ages. Basically, as you shine longer, you age more and get tired. You need more ‘fuel’ (i.e., current) to keep you going. Eventually, you’ll need so much ‘fuel’ that you just won’t meet the user’s laser shining needs (and these needs can be important to the user, and can be detrimental from an environmental, economic and social perspective)! Even though, from a technical perspective, you may still be functional you may not offer the desired qualities to the end-user.

Different lasers, have different performance. As shown in Figure 1 lasers indicated with a maroon, purple, and pink colours have a 1000+ hours performance, and it is uncertain as to how long it’ll take for their fuel needs to increase considerably. The Arrhenius equation is often used to figure out what the laser lifetime would be at regular temperatures, given what we know about their lifetime at high temperatures. Warning… CHEMISTRY ahead. Do you remember this monstrosity from high school???

This is the Arrhenius Equation, and if you haven’t seen it since your high school chemistry class, fear not! Here’s the oversimplified version:

  • k is how fast atoms move.
  • T is the temperature.
  • k is equal to a complicated mess that we don’t care about. We just need to know k (how fast atoms move) increases as T (temperature) increases.

This allows us to model how fast atoms move at different temperatures (among other things). And remember what I said in the second article in this series: The faster atoms move the faster electronics degrade. So, the Arrhenius equation can be used to model how long it will take for electronics to degrade at different temperatures: Life is inversely proportional to how fast atoms move (how naughty, and chaotic their life can become), which is complicated to calculate.

In fact, this is exactly why we go to such great lengths to add heat sinks or cooling systems to devices. Cool right? Based on chemistry, and a gallop of physics and math we can model how sustainable technologies like, electric vehicles, solar panels, wind mills, would last while being subjected to environmental conditions (e.g. radiation, heat, humidity and wind) for many years.

Now, what does laser Figure 1 tell us about lasers’ performance before the 100 hours pass? That’s where the burn-in testing happens (e.g. every laser is run for 100 hours to find any defects). The issue is that many failure modes for electronics happen ONLY in that first little while of testing (it’s like you only get chickenpox once— usually when you’re young). But for lasers, it’s more like the atoms in the crystal structure ‘dislocate/diffuse’ to the wrong places when they’re young. The problem with that is that it’s pretty hard to predict all those specific one-time failure modes. Burn-in testing is hard to extrapolate which makes it even harder to prevent potential lower quality electronics to be placed on the market.

EVERY product needs lifetime testing and EVERY unit of every product needs burn-in testing for sustainable electronics and electrical equipment to be placed on the market. Even though, there are considerable ‘costs’ (e.g. energy, carbon emissions, operational and maintenance costs) involved in testing millions of electronic and electrical equipment made at factory, these could be significantly lower than the ‘costs’ associated with electronics and electrical equipment that becomes easily obsolete, especially considering the fact that these become waste very quickly and are alarmingly mismanaged. An in-depth system-based sustainability assessment is needed to demonstrate the impacts involved!

By this point in the series, I hope you realise how important technology innovation and testing is for achieving sustainability in the long-term. With this in mind, I’ll finally wrap up the next (and last) part of this series by looking at solutions to all the major problems I’ve highlighted so far! 🛠️💪

Written by Madhav Malhotra, a 17-year-old developer, designer, and entrepreneur-in-training. To find out more about the author, please visit https://www.madhavmalhotra.com/

Testing Barriers Slow Sustainable Electronics Production (Part 2) – What (specifically) do electronics tests measure?

old gear wheel covered with rust

If you didn’t catch the first part of this series on what electronic tests are and how they relate to sustainability, you can find it here! To summarise: there are different types of electronics tests at different parts of the electronics’ life (e.g. initial design vs. end use). They help us improve technology faster. And improved technology is the key to sustainability–from energy-efficient LEDs to environmentally-friendly batteries!

If you’ve read the first article in this series, you might have noticed how a LOT of tests (for everything from hard drives to solar panels to lasers) involves heating them up. It’s one of the most common variables controlled in electronics testing. Why is that? Basically, modern electronics are made with very SPECIFIC chemistry. All the atoms have to be in just the right place (and the places have weird names, like ‘p-n junction’). At higher temperatures, atoms get ‘excited’ and move about more and more. Eventually, they get so ‘excited’ they move away from the places we want them to be. This ‘naughty’, uncontrolled behaviour causes electronics to break. Which is why temperature is an important variable in all tests, and why electronics have cooling fans, heat sinks, etc. in practical applications. 

🔑 FACT: for every 10° C increase in temperature, an electronic can break twice as fast.

Other common variables that can affect the lifetime of many types of electronics are the current and voltage they receive. Current is the flow of electrons, resistance slows down the flow, and voltage speeds up the flow.

A common analogy of voltage, resistance, and current on the internet. (Source: unknown)

Alongside these basic variables measured, there are some that are more specific to the electronic being measured. For instance, batteries measure a variable called self-discharge when they age, which is when a battery loses energy without being plugged in. Over time, this decreases the amount of energy the battery has stored. And this measure of aging is becoming more important with electric cars. You wouldn’t want to buy an electric car if you didn’t know how many years it would take before you’d have to buy a new battery. Right?

Behind all these variables is a complicated physics. It has to do with two key terms: failure modes (events that break an electronic); and failure mechanisms (the causes behind those events). Physics variables can measure when a failure mode occurs. For example, a power cable that transmits electricity underwater would undergo corrosion (failure mechanism). Eventually, there would be so much corrosion that the cable would snap (failure mode). And we would detect the cable snapping when current is no longer flowing through the wire (variable).

This underwater power cable has corroded metal. You can imagine how inconvenient this is to monitor. (Public Domain)

Though we can use current to monitor failure modes of power cables just like we can use it for laser diodes, there are VERY different failure modes for the two electronics. This is the in-depth explanation of something I mentioned in the first article; it’s REALLY hard to test electronics once they’re deployed in the field. For every electronic you want to test, you have to consider ALL the environmental conditions that could trigger ANY of the unique failure modes for that electronic. And you have to simulate the physics of the situation to understand when the failure mode might be triggered!

I hope you now see why electronics testing is a lot more complicated than it first seems. THIS is the complexity that delays electronics testing and slows down rapid innovation for future sustainable technology. In the next part of the series, I’ll describe the SPECIFIC parts of electronics testing which are slow (in case any of you sustainability innovators have ideas for how to speed up the development of green, new technology)!

Written by Madhav Malhotra, a 17-year-old developer, designer, and entrepreneur-in-training. To find out more about the author, please visit https://www.madhavmalhotra.com/

Testing Barriers Slow Sustainable Electronics Production …and they affect EVERY SINGLE device you can imagine.

It currently feels like the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘electronics’ just don’t go together. Every day, there’s a new news report about toxic materials in batteries, or the massive amount of e-waste generated and pollution associated with its mismanagement. Nonetheless, innovation in electronics technology is the KEY to many sustainable innovations: from energy-efficient LEDs to renewable energy from solar panels. And these could lead to future sustainability breakthroughs!

So, what can we do to ensure electronics are developed efficiently? Let’s take batteries. Batteries are needed for all sorts of sustainable innovations: from renewable energy storage to electric vehicles. Yet, their production is onerous process; it can take years from their design to their final acceptance and distribution to the market. Specifically, the manufacture and testing of the performance and safety of a new battery design can make up the longest part of R&D process as shown in Figure 1. So, it’s not that we don’t have better battery technology, it takes years to be released while it’s going through testing!

Most of the time taken to build a new battery is from R&D. Source: Alishba Imran, Voltx

As I’ll soon explain, electronics have testing issues at every step of their development (from the initial design to maintenance while in use).  As a result Incredibly important innovations are being slowed down by testing: solar panels for clean energy, LiDAR for autonomous vehicles, lasers for fibre-optic networks.

This article is the first of a series of four articles on these key questions:

  1. What are ‘electronic tests’ anyways?
  2. What (specifically) do tests measure?
  3. Why is ‘EVERY’ electronic test slow?
  4. How can we speed up testing?

Question #1: What are ‘electronic tests’ anyways?

Certain types of tests are performed in all electronic industries. One of the longest types of testing is reliability testing. I’ll summarise a few reliability tests throughout the device’s life: from designing an electronic to maintaining it when it’s in use. This is shown below:

Overview of the tests I’ll talk about in a product’s life (Source: Madhav Malhotra)

Reliability enhancement tests: These tests happen when electronics are still being designed. The goal is to find the maximum limits of stress (e.g. vibrations, heat, current) that will break a product design. Then, engineers can fix the most common reasons for failure. For example, hard drives (electronics that store data on older computers) have a VERY tiny ‘head’ that reads and stores data on a magnetic disc (details here). It can be as small as a flake of pepper and is suspended over a disc rotating at 130 km/h! Any vibrations can damage this ‘head.’ So engineers should concentrate on trying to design better products by making the head safer.

Engineers have to make this tiny part (as small as a pepper flake) survive for years (CC-BY-2.0)

Accelerated lifetime test: These tests carried out in simulated stressful environments (e.g., 85° C and/or 100% humidity) assess the performance of electronic products before they are placed on the market. Their purpose is to find the specifications to market the product (e.g. warranty and lifetime).

Burn-in / screening tests: These tests happen during the production process. Their purpose is to find units of a product that have manufacturing defects (e.g. cracks, wires not soldered tightly, exposure to contaminants). They do this by setting a ‘challenge’ for all units by forcing them to survive tough conditions for a short amount of time. The theory is that units with defects will degrade in this short amount of time, so they can be separated from functional devices.

Acceptance Test: These tests happen right before the electronics are installed for use. Their purpose is to make sure that products meet the standards they’re supposed to. This is more important for larger electronics (like a factory machine) than consumer electronics.

Maintenance/Field Testing: These tests happen after electronics are deployed on the field. Their purpose is to check electronics’ quality and remaining useful life. Remaining useful life is NOT the same as lifetime. Lifetime means: “My phone battery will last 3 years.” Remaining useful life means: “I’ve used my battery for a year and now it has 2 years left to last.”

Lifetime and remaining useful life are hard to predict. Why? Because the real world is messy! You don’t just have a nice simple lab with exactly 50° C of heat, no weather changes, and no humans dropping, throwing or crashing devices ’accidentally’. It’s hard to account for the probability of ANY of those issues happening sometime in the next year. That’s why startups exist just to predict the remaining useful life of important electronics (like electric car batteries).

Given all these steps, no wonder it’s complicated to figure out where these tests can be sped up! And amidst this complicated confusion, we still continue to see important innovations (like batteries) have slower development… whether that be for storing clean energy or just stopping your phone from dying.

In the next part of this series, I’ll dive deeper into understanding what electronics tests are SPECIFICALLY measuring. That’s the first step before finding possible approaches to speed up testing and start innovating faster!

Written by Madhav Malhotra, a 17-year-old developer, designer, and entrepreneur-in-training. To find out more about the author, please visit https://www.madhavmalhotra.com/


The development of a sustainable food-production and -distribution system will be central to many of the world’s pressing challenges, including food poverty and hunger, climate change and pollution associated with agricultural practices. Even though substantial progress has been made in reducing the number of people dying from famine during the last century, in 2017, the UN officially declared that the spectre of famine had returned to Africa. The COVID-19 pandemic has further aggravated the situation as global supply chains became strained due to draconic lockdown measures and growing political tensions in certain countries. According to estimates from the IPCC’s Special Report on Climate Change and Land (2019), about 8.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from the agricultural sector, with a further 14.5% resulting from land use change, i.e., primarily deforestation. The two biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector are: (a) nitrous oxide emissions from agricultural soils; and (b) methane emissions from livestock and manures. In case you were wondering energy use accounts for less than 1.5% of total emissions of the agricultural sector.

Current practices in the livestock sector might also harbour a further health crisis. The World Resource institute estimates that it requires about nine kilojoules of animal feed to produce one kilojoule of poultry meat. The production of one kilojoule of protein from poultry, the most ‘climate-friendly’ type of animal agriculture, is responsible for 40 times as many GHG emissions as one kilojoule of protein from legumes. Moreover, approximately 80% of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are currently used for the mass-production of animal products. This widespread (mis-)use significantly increases the risk of more strains of bacteria developing antibiotics resistance. The possible ensuing public health issues are frightening; it could deprive us of one of medicine’s most powerful tools, leading to huge social and economic costs. The costs of antibiotic resistant infections to the U.S. health care system alone sum up to tens of billions of US-dollars annually.

Could cultured meat be a potential solution to some of the aforementioned problems? Cultured meat is produced by in vitro cell cultures, using tissue engineering techniques similar to those used in regenerative medicine, rather than from slaughtered animals. Developments in this sector are still in their infancy, but progress has been rapid. This could cause an enormous disruption in the agricultural sector through a resource-efficient production of protein that could deliver many benefits including the eradication of famine. At least that is the general account provided by promoters of cultured meat. Currently many ambitious claims are being made around the potential benefits of the new technology, e.g. that cultured meat could significantly lower environmental impacts compared to conventional meat production, or that the use of cultured meat could help protect and restore biodiversity and halt the slaughtering of animals. It’s also been claimed that a large-scale adoption of cultured meat would not only significantly reduce the use of antibiotics in the meat production process, but that it could also significantly decrease the risk of the emergence and spread of animal-borne diseases like bird- and swine-flu. Further, the exposure to harmful substances such as pesticides and fungicides would be greatly reduced. But then again, what goes into the cultivated meat production process? What types of chemicals, and what’s the water and energy requirements to culture adequate amounts of cultured meat to cater for the growing demand for protein? Would it be ‘healthier’ than conventional meat, and, most importantly, would it be more sustainable?

For the time being, several of these points are largely speculative in nature and insufficient to draw any firm conclusions from; a systems approach could be the only way forward to determine the true benefits and to uncover potential hidden trade-offs that have to be taken into account by industry and policy makers alike.

Written by Dr. Norman Ebner, CRES strategic advisor

The impact of COVID-19 on the plastic recycling industry

set of medical protective face masks
facial mask discarded on ground
Photo by Ryutaro Tsukata on Pexels.com

Plastics are made from oil.

The global economic slowdown following the draconic COVID-19 lockdown restrictions led to a plunge in oil prices, adding to the surplus of cheap input material available for the production of plastic resin. Unsurprisingly, plastic resin prices plummeted.

With a glut of cheap virgin plastic flooding the market, the use of secondary, i.e. ‘recycled’, plastic material turned into an economically unattractive option. Lower demand for its output has put the recycling sector into a dire financial situation, threatening the economic viability of the industry and putting many jobs in peril. 

For the plastic system to be sustainable, the reliance on virgin material needs to be minimized and the management of plastics waste optimized. This can only be achieved, however, once the intrinsic complexities of the system and the respective dynamics between production, consumption and governance parts are properly understood. What can be done to ensure that the sustainability of the plastic system does not end up as yet another victim of COVID-19?

To find out more, read the article Why the pandemic could slash the amount of plastic waste we recycle” featuring in The Conversation, written by Norman Ebner and Eleni Iacovidou.