The Environmental Footprint of Supply Chains

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The Environmental Footprint of Supply Chains

To confront climate change, we need to understand the environmental footprint of global supply chains.

The European Union’s Green Deal places environmental sustainability at the heart of future economic development and targets a climate-neutral economy by 2050. But in a world of globalised supply chains, the bloc must be careful not to outsource its environmental impact to other nations.


How the EU’s Supply Chains Interact

The first step to avoid this is to develop methods to measure the extent of Europe’s supply chains and how they interact.

The vast majority of the EU’s food production takes place within its borders, but about two-thirds of the non-food crops – such as those used to produce biofuels –  are from other regions, according to research by FINEPRINT.  This project uses fine-scale data, for example satellites, to create global maps of where natural resources are being extracted.

A high percentage of environmental impacts occur at the very first stages of the supply chain.  Addressing the environmental impacts linked to mining, agriculture and forestry, requires identifying where the extraction is taking place within a country.  It is not sufficient to look at the average national impact.

For example, the environmental impact soybean exports from Brazil will vary greatly depending on whether the beans were grown in a rainforest (area) that was cleared last year or in the south where agriculture has been around for about 300 years.

However, many of the datasets necessary for the research simply did not exist.  So the researchers manually identified and marked more than 6,000 mining locations on satellite images.  The next step was to automate the recognition process. This would allow them to identify new mines, and investigate how land use has changed over time.

The project is also examining other commodities and uses data about soybean, oil palm, copper, iron, coal and oil production among others.  The ultimate aim is to connect fine-scale data of resource extraction and related environmental and social impacts and trace them along international supply chains all the way to the final consumer.

This is particularly important if the EU wants to push its Green Deal agenda.  But the reality is that while Europe is able to control what occurs in member states, the bloc – and the world – needs frameworks to understand how supply chains intersect and influence each other.


Agriculture and Global Supply Chains

Many environmental impacts that arise outside the borders of the EU occur because of the demand taking place across the EU.   Research has begun to focus on deforestation and how policy action by the EU can reduce ecosystem destruction linked to commodity imports, such as beef, soy, palm oil, and cocoa.

Large swathes of natural forests, such as the Amazon rainforest in South America, have been uprooted in favour of commodity production to meet consumer demand for food and feed.  In the EU, soybeans – mainly sourced from the United States – are primarily used for animal feed.

Each year, the EU alone imports commodities associated with the destruction of some 190,000 ha of forest. Researchers need to understand the factors – from local governance to global demand – that influence land use in an increasingly interconnected world.

soy bean supply


An idea called ‘telecoupling’ can be used to explain these connections. The concept originated in the area of climate change research, where it is called Teleconnections.  This idea refers to climate links between two geographically separate regions.

Take for example a dry forest in Argentina becoming a soybean field in order to feed pigs in Germany, whose meat is ultimately sold to China. The supply chain encircles the globe, but land use is local and is influenced by individuals, companies and governments with their own agendas.

The real issue, therefore, is whether a supply chain is sustainable from a systemic perspective.


Telecoupling and Environmental Impact

Telecoupling allows those involved in the system not only to map out the supply chain’s extent, but also look for possible solutions.

A research paper on EU policy options for addressing deforestation associated with commodity consumption within the EU has identified eight specific ‘actors’ involved in the supply chains that can lead to deforestation.  These include consumers, governments, companies, landowners, etc.,

The paper summarised existing proposals into 86 unique policy options which target different actors. These range from the politically difficult, such as trade agreements, to fairly easy, such as the EU providing information to consumers.  These also vary in their ability to reduce deforestation.

To increase impact, it is  important to concentrate efforts on sectors that are the most responsible for deforestation, such as soy, palm oil and cocoa, rather than rubber or maize which have smaller deforestation footprints.

But if the EU – and the world in general – plans to reduce its environmental footprint and curb climate change, it will need to better understand the extent of its supply chains and devise ways to regulate and control them.



This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation magazine by Sarah Wild.  The research in this article was funded by the EU.