10 Steps from Data Visualization to Drawdown
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10 Steps from Data Visualization to Drawdown

10 Steps from Data Visualization to Drawdown

A great diagram can explain so much, and empower strategic systems thinking toward better buildings.

A Life Cycle Assessment is the most detailed picture of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions – “eCO2e” or just “Carbon” for short – that we have. Recent studies have shown that embodied carbon:

  • typically accounts for the majority of life cycle carbon,
  • is entirely front loaded to the consumer,
  • and is often easily offset in great degree with the right information.
  • Often, EPD’s and HPD’s (Environmental and Health Product declarations) are the documents used by building designers to understand the impacts of a given product. EPD’s are disclosure documents, and while the ISO standards for EPDs are maturing, there is much work to be done in the synthesis of that information across a range of products, to aid consumers with procurement decisions, as well as up and down the supply chain, to map opportunities for efficiency and arbitrage. After my yearly vision quest that is the West Coast Natural Builder’s Conference, and many conversations with brilliant folks pointing me in the right direction, I came across this article today about using heat-maps to compare product types LCAs.

    Improved visualization in LCA through the application of cluster heat maps

    It’s genius. But it’s also stuck in two dimensions and bound by the confines of simulated paper. In this age of data science, we can do better, and as the climate crisis hastens its pace, we must do it now.

    I have been toying with this idea since grad school. I think I finally have the tools and the beginnings a plan of action. It’s a long shot, with many competing interests. But if we are so lucky as to get push-back from big business or special interests, we’ll know we’re doing something right!

    Stage 1: Crafted Earth will begin R&D of a publicly available web-based, interactive visual that presents a state-of-the-art comprehensive and intuitive carbon data portrait. I think the tool can not only present carbon data, but that with a critical amount of data, it can model location and space, labor used in extraction, health and toxicity data and even cost. I hope the tool can be used in conjunction with LCA’s and existing EPD’s to facilitate the most appropriate, lower-impact product selection.

    Stage 2: Crafted Earth will create and maintain a database of publicly available LCA data sets on building products. The accumulation of LCA data across different product lines will present challenges of standardization and further influence the development of the visualizations to serve a wider range of materials and assemblies.

    Stage 3: As a range of materials and assemblies for buildings are incorporated into the database, a spatial and circulatory visualization of the supply chain can emerge from that field of data. A proof of concept model is required. The task of this model is to show that a single screen combination of visuals can not only map carbon flows from cradle to consumption, but pollutants, labor inputs, shipping routes, and of course costs. The combination of these flows in one visualization is now not only a tool for identifying product selection, but for identifying efficiencies up and down the supply chain, as well as opportunities for arbitrage.

    Stage 4: Simultaneously, the urgency of the climate crisis compels us to demand of our legislators that that suppliers and manufacturers must provide EPDs to bring products to market. It is the consumer’s right to know exactly what they are buying. But wait, you say – won’t big business never allow such transparency to come to market. I believe they will if the market compels them. At scale, the tool has the potential to identify billions of dollars in savings in both the first costs found in more efficient supply chains, and the costs of the offset environmental impacts. There’s gold in them thar hills! And while we ideologically fight for our rights to data, we court champions from the lens of realpolitik. Who is most poised to harvest said data and bring the tool to maturation? Big Tech. We court both donors and legislators until LCA declarations are compulsory, either through market pressure, legislation or shear desperation from the climate threat. If the supply chain data on arbitrage is compelling, one can imagine that even a titan like Jeff Bezos, who live off arbitrage in his own supply chain, might decide that identifying that arbitrage in a way the prioritizes cost effective reduction of carbon not only makes good business sense, but that it’s also in his company’s interest if one only gets a preferred product listing on Amazon if one registers an EPD or an LCA with the EPD Global Registry, which it should be noted is shamefully underpopulated.

    Stage 5: Among database of products, identify best practice materials and assemblies. Maintain a public, open source library of industry standard BIM programs and offer open source libraries of design elements complete with specifications. Partner with Autodesk to fund and promote continued development to incorporate best practices of material selection as default or premium object libraries.

    Stage 6: Expand beyond building products. Educate and increase existing substantial economic demand. Develop UPC or RFI based comparison app for LCA on-demand for all end-user consumables.

    Stage 7: Make really good choices easy. From way upstream.

    Stage 8: Begin to heal.

    Stage 9: Draw down.

    Stage 10: Thrive.

    Eric Spletzer
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