Service industry no savior for climate

by Kevin Behr

When most people think of greenhouse gas emissions, they think about large chemical plants or steel mills spewing smoke into the atmosphere.

Banks, insurance companies, hospitals, and businesses in the service industry aren’t usually considered. According to a report released in 2001 by the Environmental Protection Agency, the residential and commercial sector produced less than five percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

Some economists believe a shift to a services-based economy will reduce emissions and could stunt global warming.

But a new study released by a University professor in the Nov. 1 issue of Environmental Science & Technology disputes that theory. The study found that the service industry indirectly accounts for 37.6 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, excluding electric utilities and transportation emissions.

If the latter two are added into the equation, the service industry accounts for about two-thirds of all greenhouse gas emissions, said Sangwon Suh, author of the report. He argued a switch to a services-based economy could actually increase emissions.

Suh, assistant professor at the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, said debates about global warming praise the service industry, but those debates are lacking a significant component.

“What’s missing is what is behind the services front that is needed to enable the services to function,” he said. “The building structure needs concrete and steel beams, which directly or indirectly create greenhouse gases.”

Suh calls the behind-the-scenes aspect of the service industry the supply-chain network. The term includes greenhouse gases emitted from products consumed to support the service industry, he said.

For example, a hospital’s direct consumption or use of “electric utilities, sanitary services and steam supply, industrial chemicals, drugs, buildings, surgical appliances and supplies” contributes to the hospital’s indirect emission of greenhouse gases, according to Suh’s report.

Suh developed a database containing 480 products and services with supply-chain information and data on 1,344 different emissions of “basically all the greenhouse gases that we know of,” he said.

Suh found that when direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions are added together, a number of services typically considered “clean” actually land in the top 10 for all industrial greenhouse gas emitters, according to the study.

Among them are retail trade, hospitals and eating and drinking establishments. Increasing focus on these industries, Suh argued in the report, could lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Natalie Ries, an ecology, evolution and behavior senior and officer in the student group EcoWatch, said she agrees that a more service-based U.S. economy won’t necessarily reduce greenhouse gas production, but either way, something needs to be done to address the increasing global warming threat.

“To reduce our greenhouse gases, we need to rethink the energy structure in the U.S., and globally too,” Ries said.

The paradigm needs to shift away from viewing business and the environment as conflicting interests, she said.

“There are ways to do business that don’t have such a negative impact on the environment,” she said. “You can do business in a green way.”

Future of emissions

Suh said the current policies on climate change are not obsolete, but supply-chain information should be incorporated to help solve the problem.

One solution he offered was labeling products with information about how many greenhouse gases were emitted throughout its lifecycle.

– Mike Enright contributed to this report