At Ironfire we aim to make our industrial sustainable furniture ecologically friendly. It’s a challenge and I often struggle to know how to calculate our carbon footprint and our climate change impact. In fact now that I come to think about it, do I fully comprehend what are the definitions of global warming and the real climate change facts? Why it is such a looming disaster? Of course, like most people, I know the headline reasons. I also believe that so many eminent scientists can’t be wrong.
Most climate change explanations though head off into complex jargon that goes right over my head. So I thought that I would try and understand a bit more. At the same time, I would try and uncover documented facts and make them more accessible. I’m hoping for better understanding to help set the priorities at Ironfire.
I’ve found finding clearly expressed science time consuming but more straightforward than expected. Thinking, “there must be others like me” I am going to try and lay out my findings in a simple format. I’m not looking to patronise anyone and if you mutter ” we all know that” – Don’t waste your time – move on quickly!
I have put as many verifiable links as possible into the statements I discovered. I’ve numbered paragraphs for ease of reading and paraphrased to make it easier to read. My commentary is not bullet proof, just conclusions that I’ve arrived at trying to simplify wordy reports!
Greenhouse gas emissions & climate change – the size of the problem.
If you are partial to scary statistics try these facts about global warming. Man-made greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 equalled 36 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. 72% was CO2 from coal burning and industry. 19% was Methane ( from livestock in most part), 6% was nitrous oxide, and 3% was fluorine gases. A further 4 billion tonnes of carbon emissions come from natural sources. The average contribution each human on the planet makes is 4.8 tonnes per year. The “Net zero” target (it’s hoped) will limit global warming to a manageable 1.5°C increase. To achieve that we need to reduce these Carbon emissions by half in the next decade. Moreover, we then need to hit those Net Zero emissions by 2050. This link provides a clear overview of what we need to achieve. https://www.wri.org/blog/2019/09/what-does-net-zero-emissions-mean-6-common-questions-answered
The main causes of industrial greenhouse gas emissions are as follows. Electricity & heat (25%), agriculture & forestry (24%), industry (21%), and transportation (14%).
Deforestation – climate change facts.
It’s also estimated that deforestation causes 10% of global warming. The main reasons for deforestation are increasing use of land for beef and palm oil (27%). Wood and lumber products (26%). Short term agricultural cultivation (24%), and wildfires (23%).
What greenhouse gases are
1) The earth absorbs energy from the sun into our atmosphere. In turn it radiates infrared radiation back to outer space. These two effects balance out in nature to maintain our climate. This natural greenhouse effect means the earth’s temperature is about 30 degrees C.
The link here is about the best graphical explanation I’ve come across.
2) Natural greenhouse gas emissions enable life on earth to exist. They keep warmth necessary to sustain life in the atmosphere. Global warming is caused by extra, excess carbon chemicals remaining in the atmosphere. These carbon molecules absorb infrared rays. Excess heat can’t then radiate to outer space and so further warms up the earth’s atmosphere.
3) So global warming results if anything disturbs earth’s natural equilibrium. Some people call the balanced greenhouse effect Gaia – the spirit of earth!
4) Trace gas pollutants from carbon emissions can last for years and even centuries in the atmosphere. They trap heat and as discussed, cause the planet, by absorption, to get hotter, causing cliate change. That’s why it’s known as the greenhouse gas effect.
5) The trace gases that contribute most to climate change are water vapour and carbon dioxide. https://ukair.defra.gov.uk/assets/documents/reports/cat07/0710011214_ED48749_VOC_Incineration_-_CC_Report_v3.pdf
6) Water vapour makes up 60% of global warming. That’s far more than the carbon emissions we are putting into the atmosphere. That’s because water vapour in the air exists in direct relation to the temperature. So, the more you increase a temperature, the more water evaporates. This becomes vapour, and vice versa. So when something causes a temperature increase, such as CO2, more water evaporates. Water vapor is a greenhouse gas so extra vapor makes the temperature rise even further. https://www.skepticalscience.com/water-vapor-greenhouse-gas.htm
7) To decrease global warming we need to reduce man made pollutants. Some of these gases are potent greenhouse contributors to climate change. They have been adding to the greenhouse effect from the time we started burning vast amounts of coal. This, as discussed, is increasing the amount of water vapour held in the atmosphere. For a simple demo of the acceleration of global warming, read this.
8) Hundreds of different trace gases have been measured in the atmosphere. It is believed that thousands more have yet to be measured. Many of these are volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Volatile means a compound may exist in the liquid or solid phase but easily evaporates. Organic means that the compound contains carbon.
9) VOCs as trace gases often exist in tiny parts per million in the atmosphere. Yet they are important as many are long-lived in the atmosphere. Other important greenhouse gases are Carbon dioxide, Carbon monoxide, Methane and Water vapour. https://www.e-education.psu.edu/meteo300/node/607
10) There are varying definitions of VOCs around the world. The GWP (global warming potential) index is pretty easy to understand. It ranks VOCs as follows. “the GWP of a VOC measures its climate change impact compared to CO2. It also includes how long the trace gas remains in the atmosphere once emitted”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming_potential
11) Volatile organic compounds are chemicals that have a low boiling point. If you’re interested in the science here we go. This low boil temperature is because they have a high vapour pressure. That causes a lot of molecules to evaporate from the liquid (or solid form of the compound) into the air around them. This effect is known as volatility. Formaldehyde for example evaporates from paints and coatings because it has a boiling point of only –19 °C.
12) VOCs are released from burning fuel such as gasoline, wood, coal, or natural gas. They are also released from many consumer products. Cigarettes, solvents, paints & thinners, adhesives, dry cleaning fluids and glue & wood preservatives. Cleaners & disinfectants, air fresheners, building materials & furnishings, copiers & printers and pesticides are also examples. https://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/chemicals-and-contaminants/volatile-organic-compounds-vocs
Steel, the extraction of iron ore and getting it to the furnace are resource heavy. Most VOCs emitted are however burnt off by high temperature in this process. Lots of VOCs therefore get emitted in the initial process of recycling scrap steel though. This is due to the processes involved in removing coatings and impurities. I suppose it all goes to emphasise that there isn’t such a thing as a free lunch. https://www.ubs.com/microsites/nobel-perspectives/en/latest-economic-questions/2020/solution-to-climate-change.html?campID=SEM-BRAND&s_kwcid=AL!602!3!445675510732!b!!g!!%2Bways%20%2Bto%20%2Bstop%20%2Bglobal%20%2Bwarming&ef_id=Cj0KCQjw6575BRCQARIsAMp-ksNNcquXbZFqqsVUQtIzMS1c1oi5OElYYCa8AMicyPBp77kOrAb0ojcaAmNiEALw_wcB:G:s&s_kwcid=AL!602!3!445675510732!b!!g!!%2Bways%20%2Bto%20%2Bstop%20%2Bglobal%20%2Bwarming!10436011345!1038
13) The earth emits about 1150 Teragrams of carbon VOCs every year. These occur naturally. By comparison, humans release 142 Teragrams as CO2 every year by breathing! When VOC’s combine with Nitrous Oxides in the air, they form Smog. This makes sense as urban areas have higher levels of VOC than open country.
14) VOCs include both human-made and natural chemical compounds. Most scents or odours are of VOCs. These compounds help communication between plants and form messages from plants to animals. Many natural VOCs are pretty benign, and humans have evolved to coexist with them. Vegetation is a major emitter of a VOC called Isoprene. Each year, 600 million metric tons of Isoprene enter the air. More than half of this comes from broad leaf trees. Small shrubs and bushes release much of the rest.
Without many of these VOCs, the world would be very different. Limonene, produces the citrusy odour of orange and lemon peels. A large percentage of essential oils are from these plants. Styrene, used to produce polystyrene, occurs in everything from coffee beans to peanuts. https://foobot.io/guides/natural-sources-of-volatile-organic-compounds.php
15) Some VOCs are dangerous to humans and cause environmental damage. Manmade VOCs are called Anthropogenic and are regulated by law, specially for indoors, where concentrations are highest. Harmful VOCs are not high in toxins but can cause long term health problems. Because individual amounts are low symptoms can develop over a longer period. This makes research into VOCs and their effects difficult. People who suffer from respiratory complaints can be susceptible to VOCs indoors.
Short-term exposure – effects from VOCs may cause irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. Also, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders and memory problems are sometimes experienced.
Long-term exposure – VOC damage may cause nausea, fatigue, dizziness and impair co-ordination. There’s also the risk of Cancer and damage to one’s liver, kidney and central nervous system.
When you paint rooms, lay new carpet or install furniture try to ensure lots of ventilation.
So that’s my quick short trip around global warming facts. What are my conclusions?
It’s interesting to see the amount of Carbon emissions sent into the atmosphere by us, is tiny! Particularly when compared with those occurring naturally. That gave me insight into why this is a slow, cumulative effect. It also gives me confidence that the greenhouse effect can be overcome.
We humans seem to be very slow to respond to a problem and then only in an incremental fashion. The current corona pandemic shows early action is the most successful. But most governments avoid offending powerful special interest groups. That leads to fudge and indecision. The same principle applies to global warming. Why would all of us oil guzzling, carnivorous, foreign holiday addicts line up for change? Even with all of the climate change facts at our fingertips we first worlders are just too comfortable.
We do seem to be lumbering towards turning the oil tanker around though! Usually the best solution to a problem is to make something financially attractive. We are seeing the decay of fossil fuel use in favour of electricity. This is increasingly made using “clean” technology. There are backwards steps of course on the journey. For example, I would much rather see the cost of our H2 rail project spent on renewable energy schemes. Imagine what £100 Billion could achieve to support the transition to renewable energy!
So – how much Carbon do we need to reduce by to achieve net zero?
We need to put 38 billion tonnes less CO2 per year into the atmosphere to wipe out all global warming. The world average is 4.8 tonnes per person worldwide, but first world residents create up to 16 tonnes each. That compares to 0.1 tonnes for residents in Mali and Niger.
So, the world is trying to limit temperature growth to 1.5C. Carbon output is still growing however, so that’s unlikely and we already are slipping towards 2C.
It’s difficult to predict how much more pollutant we can add to the atmosphere and keep to 1.5°C. A good estimate to keep a good chance of meeting that is – 400 to 500 Billion tonnes. This is known as our Carbon budget. It says that to hit Net Zero by 2050 we need to reduce our carbon footprint by a further 60%. The longer we take to do this the more we will have to give up!
What can we contribute to reducing global warming?
Simple things that we are starting to do are as follows and do make a difference of tons of personal CO2 production.
Changing light bulbs to a low energy bulb. Saving – 150 lbs per bulb.
Drive less. Saving – 1lb of CO2 for every mile you don’t drive!
Recycle more. saving – 2,400 lbs of CO2 per year by recycling just half of your household waste.
Check your tyres. Every gallon of fuel saved keeps 20 lbs of CO2 out of the atmosphere.
Use less hot water. It takes a lot of energy to heat water. Take shorter, cooler showers. Wash clothes at a lower temperature and ensure a full load. Saving – More than 500 lbs of CO2 annually.
Avoid packaging. Saving – 1,200 lbs of CO2 if you reduce your rubbish by 10%.
Adjust your thermostat. Saving – 1,000 lbs from 1 degree reduction in winter, more in summer
Plant a tree. Saving – A single tree will absorb one tonne of CO2 over its lifetime.
Turn off electronic devices when you’re not using them. Saving – thousands of lbs of CO2 a year.
Eat a more plant based diet. – To get the same protein from beef as peas, emissions are nearly 90 times higher.
You can find out more about this issue here.
There are 2204 lbs to a UK Tonne. So, have a quick review to calculate what savings you might be able to make?
If you do want to calculate your own carbon footprint, here is the link to a popular and free site. If you want to see lots of statistics about global warming go to – https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions#future-emission-scenarios
Slow progress? Some reasons to be cheerful.
Don’t beat yourself up too much. UK greenhouse gas emmissions peaked in The UK’s CO2 emissions peaked in the year 1973 and have declined by around 38% since 1990, faster than any other major developed country. lot of savings are going to have to come from big reductions in shipping items around the world. Also moving away from fossil fuels and aviation will need to play a part. Redesign in industrial processes and power generation will also need to be introduced swiftly. There is also hope that carbon capture technology will advance to fill shortfalls.
More good news is the tropical deforestation fact that cutting can be halted. In many places it already is being reduced. A variety of approaches have shown promising results. These include corporate deforestation-free commitments to the REDD+ initiative and the Soy Moratorium. Progress requires a sustained commitment by governments, businesses, consumers, and non-governmental organizations. Their goal – the ending—and as possible, reversal—of tropical deforestation.
How do we apply all of this into Ironfire Industrial furniture?
Hopefully the material above makes it easier to grasp the effect our products have on global warming? The world seems to be full of people saying that they are doing a great job. Often that sounds more an advertising strategy than trying to make something in a better way. So, does Ironfire stand up to examination as sustainable furniture?
It was key, to me, to learn that reprocessing old steel creates more VOCs than new. I am pretty sure of course that fact doesn’t hold if you include ore extraction. But it does suggest that there aren’t any straightforward solutions, more, a lot of grey areas.
First off, in a globalised consumer market, no business can survive making utilitarian products. Neither can they use materials irrespective of cost. Making things that you have to be rich to afford is not, in my view, much of a contribution to a sustainable future. The same goes for hand making craft items. Great, but again is not a path to make a difference to global warming. Second, should we be balancing sustainability against ecological materials? By this I mean, is it better to make something once and well, than make it disposable. The question that quickly follows that is… Is it preferable to use a material that emits twice as many VOCs but lasts four times longer? The answer is, of course, to do neither but the point is that there is often a trade off. That means we have to be practical and choose the lesser of two evils?
So, Ironfire’s challenge is to make industrial furniture with (as close as possible) to a net zero global warming effect. At the same time, it needs to be affordable, practical and attractive. We are very keen to show that our aims are not an affectation but the normal way that business should be.
Our belief is that we should concentrate on making Ironfire last as long as possible. That means making it strong and robust but also simple to repair, to refresh and to renew. It also means protecting it against the elements too. You can see a description of the 7 different ways we do things to achieve these aims here.
Simply – if we can make a thing last twice as long then we’ve already halved our environmental impact.
Making things is not just about what materials you use, it’s about the whole business. Here’s our specific ideas.
We design and make everything we sell. We don’t ship in cheap, trendy furniture from Asia. The CO2 impact of shipping miles is huge. We try to ensure that our steel is UK produced. It’s always galvanised, which is a VOC free process, ensuring long life. We then powder coat, another VOC free process. Some things we sub contract from reputable partners we have worked with for years. Everything, however is produced in the South West of England.
Wood is generally seen as carbon neutral. We use only quick growing UK pine. This is renewable Douglas Fir from a timber mill within 30 miles. We then air dry it and coat it with long lasting, VOC free waxes.
We use British glass and metal fixings treated with rust protection. There are only three things we can’t UK source. One of these is unique waterproof material from 500 miles away in Holland. The second, small Hydrophobic valves made to our design and posted from China. Third our wood treatment we produce from Belgian bases travelling 275 miles to us.
We try to deliver everything we make and plan effective delivery routes. We only supply direct to our customer. Cutting out the retailer saves our customers money. It also allows wider customer choice and a personal service. It also means that we can avoid disposable packaging which is a big fact of global warming.
Ironfire doesn’t want to be politically correct for the sake of it. We want to make practical ecological choices about complicated issues. Well sustainable furniture anyway! For example, we currently powder coat metal and can pass on that industry’s claim that the process is VOC free. The truth is the process involves a lot of heat during process and harsh chemicals in the cleaning. At the same time is powder coating the best finish for us? We are looking at alternatives which are longer lasting and more pleasing to the customer. A strong coating means using two pack finishes and we can’t find anything that is water based…yet. That means a level of VOCs but believe the benefit of improved product to end user justifies that. We must offset the heat involved in powder coating against a low level of VOCs emitted in a cold spray process.
About the author: Andrew Knight lives near Frome in Somerset. He has been running his business Ri Manufacturing for 25 years. Ironfire is a new challenge. Read about us here. He’s spent his career solving problems and turning them into products. There’s been enough success and failure to ensure he retains his enthusiasm and a sense of humour! Many thanks to Kiran P and to Shannon B for their patient editing of this article.
All comments welcome, please send to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Other Ironfire blogs that relate to this subject:
Finally, further reference material (for those I haven’t quite bored to death!)