States of industry

You log on to the website, input your information, and there it is: an instant appraisal of how your company compares with your sector, your industry, Europe-wide. This is the ultimate vision of the MEPI (Measuring Environmental Performance of Industry) project, co-ordinated here in the UK by the Science and Technology Policy Research Unit at Sussex University. Matt MacAllan reports.


“All industrial processes involve

the consumption and manipulation of energy and materials, leading to the

production of

products, services, and wastes. These physical transactions

constitute the most direct relationship between firms and the environment.

How do these relationships evolve over time? How can such changes be

explained and how can such an analysis inform environmental policy makers

in

government and industry?” The Measuring Environmental Performance of

Industry (MEPI) proposal puts its case. Funded by DGXII, the research

technology development directorate of the European Commission, MEPI

consists

of European project partners from: Politecnico di Milano; Vrije

Univesiteit

Amsterdam; Institut für Ökologische Wirtschaftsforschung, Wein, Austria;

Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, Seville, Spain; and

Université Catholique de Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. It began in

April 1998 and is scheduled to come to a close in June this year, having,

in

the words of Dr Frans Berkhout, head of the Environment Programme at the

Science and Technology Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex,

and MEPI co-ordinator, “set on a mature footing the quantitative

measurement

of environmental performance in manufacturing industry”.

Indicators are condensed information. Producing indicators, then, involves

gathering that information which is to be condensed. MEPI is aiming to

produce three types: physical indicators concerned with mass and energy

flows through the manufacturing process (i.e. solid waste per unit of

output); economic indicators linking physical data to business performance

(i.e. emissions related to value added); and environmental indicators

linking environemntal impacts to physical data on inputs, emissions and

outputs (i.e. acidification potential per unit of output). Thus, for the

first 18 months, MEPI set about first defining, and then collating, the

information that forms the raw product of the project, the database.

Environmental specificities

“We came up with two conclusions,” says Berkhout, on the issue of exactly

what information should be included. “One is that there are some variables

that you want to collect for all sectors, the generic variables to do with

energy input, water input, CO2 emissions and so on. But in order to do

justice to the technological and other environmental specificities,

obviously you need industry specific variables as well.”

It¹s a long list. “We had some very tricky discussions, some of which are

still raging.” Berkhout is philanthropical. “This is a pilot study, of

sorts. We don¹t want to believe that all these variables will always be

necessary, but we will include them in the first instance and see what

makes

sense.”

450 company years

Each partner then went out to companies in each of the six sectors,

gathering information from corporate environmental reports, EMAS and ISO

14001 registration, National Emissions Inventories and company surveys.

Inevitably, very few of the variables identified were reported consistently

to any extent by companies. At the close of the information gathering

stage,

however, at the end of December, MEPI had accumulated somewhere in the

region of 450 company years of site, business unit and firm-level data,

from

some 280 companies. “In a way that is the most important effect of a

project

like this,” says Berkhout. “The demonstration effect. It shows that, if you

know where to look, and if you care to look, then actually there is a lot

of

information about companies¹ environmental performance out there. It can be

collated and made to say sensible things.”

Notably, the project has failed

to make any headway whatsoever in the computers sector, due, it

is believed, to the sheer depth

and breadth of the supply chain, and to the fact that the environmental

impacts of the computer are not in assembly. The impacts of the very small

segment of the supply chain inhabited by the computer manufacturer, as

Berkhout points out, are largely irrelevent: “All the Life Cycle

Assessments

that have been

carried out on computers demonstrate that 80% of the energy

consumption that takes place

does so while the computer is switched on.”

Whilst, at the outset of the project, risk analysis concluded that a

potential lack of data posed the greatest threat to MEPI¹s usefulness, the

collection and collation of so much data for the remaining five sectors

posed an entirely different question: validation, as Berkhout admits:

“There

is a data quality problem. We have to hope that when a company publishes a

corporate environmental report, that it does so honestly. Even so, how is a

number actually derived? Is it measured? Is it estimated? And if it is

measured, how is it measured? What instrument was used? Has it been

calibrated recently? Indeed, what is the number? Over what time scale?

“We have to assume that the data that is published in an environmental

report, or in an Emissions Register, is good. Our attitude is that we

wanted

to get our fingers dirty with it, and that is the second validation: when

we

bring these data together and develop indicators, do reasonable numbers or

reasonable trends emerge? And, oddly enough, they do.”

A MEPI website, scheduled to be up and running in May this year, will

present the findings of the project in sector report format, with selected

data available in tabulated form. The benchmark report-generating site

will,

it is hoped, be the subject of a follow-on project. Berkhout: “We have

demonstrated that there is data out there, and so there is value in

continuing to collect and to build ­ more sectors, more companies, more

countries. We hope that eventaully this becomes a pan-European benchmarking

tool.”

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