FFaced with the urgency of ecological challenges, what can and what should manufacturers do? First, intensify efforts for “eco-efficiency”, i.e. the search for methods to produce more and better with less: less materials, energy, capital, but also less greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, destructive effects on life.
The task is immense. In some cases, it requires real technological breakthroughs, such as for the decarbonization of major basic materials (steel and cement in particular), which represent a considerable share of emissions. But it should be noted that this task is basically in line with what manufacturers have always done and have known how to do; except for this (enormous) difference that it is now a question of integrating into the calculation of efficiency all sorts of effects which were traditionally rejected outside the scope of this calculation, and of acting on a complete cycle ranging from materials raw materials to the recycling of finished products.
The challenge is to pivot towards circular models instead of the old linear models. This challenge, far from being purely technical, involves new performance measurement criteria, in-depth knowledge of flows and new forms of cooperation between firms. It is a new industrial landscape that needs to be built, well beyond the mere greening of production processes.
The advances on this front are already substantial, and the margins for progress are still very significant. Unfortunately, there is a devil in the box, which is called the “rebound effect”: progress made at the micro level of supply is eaten up, often overtaken, at the macro level of demand. Air transport is considerably more efficient than thirty years ago, but demand has exploded, and the overall impact has worsened. The need for energy and material to produce a unit of light (a lumen) has dropped dramatically over the past century. Result: we see our cities from space, the gain has been totally absorbed by the increase in consumption. No sector escapes this process. We can reverse the problem in all directions: if we do not act on demand at the same time as on supply, the pursuit of efficiency is like running on a treadmill that goes in reverse.
A step further
There is therefore no other choice than to go through the sobriety box. By specifying right away that this cannot be limited to our individual consumption: it above all implies rethinking our collective methods of organizing time and space, and the resulting structural waste. The typical example is, of course, the dispersion of our habitat in small housing estates, which make countless households prisoners of the car. A division of roles is thus taking shape: technical efficiency for companies; sobriety, and the underlying value choices, for citizen-consumers and public authorities.
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