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An Equation, Multiplication, and Environmental Impact

Environmental impact equation for triple win advisory sustainable business blog

A Positive Caveat?

The title sounds a bit ominous to the discussion laid out below.  It’s not.  I’ll even try to make math fun, which it is, when it’s easy to understand.

What is the IPAT Equation?

I’m referring to the IPAT equation.  It’s an equation developed in the 1970’s by the early environmentalist thinkers, Barry Commoner, Paul Ehrlich and John Holdron.  It has remained relevant over the past 40 plus years having been used to help promote, for instance, the notion of Industrial Ecology as a way forward in mitigating environmental pollution as well as to help understand energy flows related to factors that cause climate change, to name a few ways in which the formula has been utilized.  The equation was devised to discuss and better understand which factors play a role in environmental impact – positively or negatively.  The equation is simple and made up of just four variables.  Those include:

I = environmental Impact

P = Population (size or growth)

A = Affluence that can be translated into Consumption of a population

T = Technology

The equation is multiplicative.  Mathematically, it is written as such:

I = P x A x T

The factors that lead to environmental impact are population (P), consumption of that population (A), and the deployment of technological innovation (T).  In the IPAT equation, these factors are multiplied by each other factor. All three variables are inter-related.

Explaining the Variable A for Affluence

The variable A probably could use a little explanation.  A(ffluence) is equated to Consumption say, on a per capita basis.  The more people are born, live and prosper in a society or on the globe, the more each individual necessitates access to food, shelter, education, and material goods.  All of these things require activities to produce them.  All production requires energy.  Historically and it is true today, as nations develop themselves, the citizens of these countries go from subsistence levels to middle-class, not only able to afford more food, better shelter and material goods, but desiring more in the form of material “comfort” in their lives.  Thus, as nations’ develop, its citizens often become more affluent.  Affluence is an indicator of consumption levels of individuals.

How IPAT Is Important or Meaningful to Us

What the heck does all this mean?

The IPAT equation is widely regarded as a useful “thought model” for better understanding the levers available to humanity on how to regulate and ideally, mitigate continued environmental degradation (read:  land, water and air pollution, biodiversity loss, climate change) of the planet Earth.  IPAT argues increases in population which directly affect increases in human consumption create ever more stress on the environmental systems of our planet.  Technology has been seen at varying times and in differing degrees over the equation’s history as both a detriment and balm to the environmental impacts of population growth and the rising need and desire for people to consume.

Is T for Technology the Cure-All?

Technological innovation is often seen as a mechanism to temper population and consumption increases on the planet.  Think about the efficiencies from technological innovation: manufacturing process automation; more efficient water, electric and heating/cooling systems; and the utilization of computers to perform highly complicated mathematical analyses.  Technology has enabled us to work better and faster; to use less electricity and water; and to be more efficient in our tasks.  This is all considered good.  In this way, technology has the ability to counter the burdens a growing population and its consumption requirements demand on the planet by making processes more efficient and effective.

Jevon’s Paradox or The Unintended Consequences of Technology

The problem with relying on technology to fix all of our planetary problems is best summed up by Jevon’s Paradox.  Jevon’s Paradox, articulated by William Stanley Jevons in the mid-19th Century, states that advances in greater energy efficiency does not lead to using less of something, but paradoxically, usually entails an increased use of the energy-efficient product.  It is the idea that when something is thought of (and is) more efficient at doing something; that thing is desired (and is) utilized in even greater quantities.  Think fat-free ice cream.  People ate more of it, not less, because it was considered guilt-free.  Energy-efficient refrigerators led to a global explosion in demand for personal home refrigeration.  Fuel-efficient cars led to an increase in automobile ownership; a growth of cars manufactures with increased horsepower, and greater vehicle miles travelled by car owners.  Jevon’s Paradox warns against the blind application of technology in the hope that better, more effective and more efficient will lead to a decrease in use.  The unintended consequence may be the opposite…with mal-effects to the environment.

A Word of Caution in Employing Technology

All this is to say that the design and use of technology to fight environmental degradation and the mitigation of climate change is both a worthy and important endeavor to pursue.  Technology should be both appropriate for and moderated in its intended use. Its unintended consequences should be looked at carefully…and I know that is an oxymoron of a sentence.  Technology for technology sake will not solve the complex, wicked problems we currently face today with climate change.  Think about the IPAT equation.  Environmental impact – negatively and positively – is impacted by three multiplicative variables:  population, consumption and technology.  All three levers need to be seriously addressed and appropriately moderated for the best ecological outcomes for our planet.

Contact Kate Gaertner today to see what Triple Win Advisory can do to help your business and industry increase sustainability to result in a “triple win” for company profit and long-term competitive advantage, societal well-being, and successful environmental pollution mitigation.

References

Chertow, Marian R. (2001).  The IPAT Equation and Its Variants:  Changing Views of Technology and Environmental Impact.  Journal of Industrial Ecology.

Owen, David.  (2010, December 20 & 27).  The Efficiency Dilemma.  The New Yorker. 

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