The Carbon Footprint of the Average Cigarette Packet (Part 2)

Many methods exist for today for ‘carbon footprinting’, a term that is today often heard but not always fully understood. Placing a number on the ‘amount of CO­ equivalent’ that a product or process creates can be a useful measure to scientists, but for those less numerate these amounts need to be placed in an appropriate context. For example, a UK consumer might be told that driving their car typically equates to a carbon dioxide release of about two tonnes annually. This certainly sounds like an awful lot, but is much more meaningful when stated comparatively. For example, the mass of CO2 released annually from driving an average UK car, is about double the mass of the car itself. Or, roughly the same amount as released from leisure activities, owning a dog, being carnivorous rather than vegetarian, or heating the home all year. It’s half as much as from taking a single intercontinental flight, twenty times as much as the footprint of an average Kenyan citizen, one fifth of the footprint of an average UK citizen, and 0.00000007% of the world’s total emissions footprint.

It’s clear to see how context results in the same information being interpreted entirely differently, influencing human behaviour in very different ways. Realising that driving a typical car produces as much CO2 annually as twenty citizens of Kenya, or the heating of an entire three-bedroom house for an entire year, might encourage the consumer to drive less. But realising that their impact as an individual is pitifully small when compared globally, or that it represents a far less damaging activity than flying, conversely might encourage them to drive more.

By trying to steer my blog onto a more qualitative path, I will continue to use these contextual and comparative ways of presenting information, and continue to examine how context can influence interpretation. So from now on, we will proceed slightly more unscientifically. After all, this is precisely how politicians and the mass media present their information: use (or abuse) of context to appeal to the emotions of a prescribed audience. Factually accurate, but contextually specific – we know this as spin. Whilst spin may be sacrilege to the scientist, it should be appreciated that this is the most commonly utilised means of convincing a wider audience, and a tool that must be understood if hoping to advocate widespread change. By easily recognising the use of spin, a scientist may swiftly undermine the argument of an adversary.

And now, before I launch once again onto the wrong topic, let’s get back to unscientific carbon footprinting (actually there is currently no formal consensus on measuring carbon footprints anyway, so unscientific is nicely appropriate). Let’s begin with the most major aspect of tobacco carbon footprint: deforestation.

In the developing world, trees are cut down for tobacco for two reasons. The first is to make way for the crops themselves, and the second is for fuel for drying the tobacco leaves, known as curing. Tobacco leaves are often dried in purpose-built curing barns, where farmers burn wood to produce the warm air required. 600 million trees are cut down every year for these combined purposes, representing 2-4% of world total deforestation. It takes around three kilograms of wood to cure only one kilogram of tobacco.

Beyond the world’s tropical regions where tobacco is traditionally grown, tobacco plants also thrive in semi-arid lands where additional loss of trees can be the tipping point towards desertification. Western Uganda is an example of where topsoil has been washed away, leading to sheet erosion. Dwindling sources of wood fuel have led to the establishment of tree planting programs in some of these areas, but the plantations are often of non-native and fast-growing species, adversely affecting biodiversity and thus increasing land vulnerability to the effects of climate change.

Aside from the growth of tobacco itself, are the impacts of the products required during cigar and cigarette processing and manufacturing. These processes require the use of solvents, oils, paper, wood and plastics, all of which have carbon footprints in their own right, whether it be from production or disposal. For example, cigarette filters are made from cellulose acetate, a chemical derived from petroleum products which takes 12 years to decompose and kills millions of birds, fish and other animals every year. Such an impact upon ecosystems and carbon cycle cannot be measured directly.

The other major indirect footprint of the tobacco industry, is from the transportation of its raw materials and products. 5.5 trillion cigarettes are produced each year, or about 7 million tons of tobacco. Assuming that the average distance tobacco travels from producer to supplier to consumer is around 4,000 miles, including all products used in cigarette manufacturing and not including lifestyles of tobacco employees, this is the equivalent of ~10,000 Boeing 747 cargo flights around the world.

So, I realise that I am already in breach of my promise to limit the statistics of this week’s discussion, but I just can’t resist a couple more which were published by British American tobacco in 2006. They claim that the annual emissions from their company are around half a million tonnes of carbon dioxide. With total cigarette production of 660 billion cigarettes, this indicates an industry total of four million tonnes of CO2. This compares to a globally accepted figure of CO2 release from deforestation of two billion tonnes. Extrapolating British American’s figures to the industry as a whole, tobacco companies appear to be claiming they are responsible for only 0.2% of total global CO2 released from deforestation, despite being responsible for 2-4% of deforestation itself! This does not even include all the other emissions that occur within their supply chain. No wonder that US litigation recently revealed that the tobacco industry is involved in initiatives casting doubt on climate change evidence.

So whilst media and politicians are busy framing facts to suit themselves, is the world of business busy simply inventing facts to suit themselves? Not necessarily; again it comes down to context. Without knowing the methodology employed by British American tobacco when calculating their carbon footprint, we cannot make quantifiable accusations as to their environmental impact, and frankly, even if we did would it make a difference? After all, our tobacco companies are busy doing what they do best: supplying demand, creating jobs, making money. The fact that they make claims that their footprint is seemingly much lower than that indicated by my external calculations is irrelevant, as it cannot be substantiated or compared.

To close on this topic, let us summarise two critical conclusions that can be drawn from a swift look at the tobacco industry. Firstly, environment is currently incompatible with economics. Companies are incentivised to make money within the economic constraints set by international law; carbon emissions do not yet feature as a constraint. Environment cannot be therefore be reconciled with current economic structures unless a new carbon trading market is created. Secondly, such a market cannot succeed unless a standardised methodology of measuring carbon emissions can be applied globally and uniformly. This would need to account for a product’s entire life cycle, from raw materials to disposal, including all material, energy and waste flows. Such a methodology would need to be completely transparent, replicable and verifiable, as clearly different parties within the process would have very different agendas, leaving large possibilities for corruption.

And that brings us to the end of the longest topic by far, so far! Let’s say two entries for the price of one. To summarise, smoking can quite easily be condemned as ‘bad for climate’: my motivation to stay off cigarettes gains momentum.

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