Interview with Professor Kazuyo Matsubae

A short interview with Professor Matsubae, professor of Environmental and Energy Economics in the Graduate School of Environmental Studies at Tohoku University in Japan.

Please explain what a life cycle assessment is and why it is important when we think about resource consumption and supply chains.

While much attention is being paid to mitigating global warming risks, the various threats posed by the consumption of resources used in mitigation technologies are often neglected.

In particular, there is concern that the increased use of various metal and mineral resources used in global warming risk mitigation technology will cause an increase in environmental load and an increase in societal risks in upstream supply chains. Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is a powerful analytical tool that can provide visualizations of various risks throughout the supply chain and shed light on the trade-offs associated with mitigating global warming risks. The results derived from LCA can also facilitate sharing knowledge among experts in different fields and enable society to select the appropriate technologies and system designs when mitigating environmental challenges.

What are the key challenges with commercial food production in light of ever growing global populations? And what could be done (and by whom) to improve the situation?

There is an urgent need to secure land, water, and fertilizer to support the food supply of the burgeoning global population. Although phosphorus and mineral salts are a key ingredient in synthetic fertilizers, the availability of high-quality primary resources is rapidly decreasing.

The reduction of primary resource utilization is also required because heavy metals and radioactive substances associated with extracting mineral resources cause higher environmental costs. Thus, the utilization of recovered resources, including from livestock manure and wastewater sludge, has been expanding in various regions and countries to improve resource efficiency. Also, in pursuit of a circular economy, new technologies for agricultural production in closed systems such as vertical farming are expected to dramatically improve the utilization efficiency of nutrients.

What has Covid-19 exposed about global supply chain risks? What needs to be done to build in greater resilience?

Poverty caused by the loss of employment opportunities due to the COVID-19 pandemic may exasperate illegal mining and socially or legally inappropriate employment methods such as child-labor. Although such issues have been monitored by field surveys so far, there is a risk that the negative social impacts on resource use will increase since the pandemic has made the conducting of field surveys difficult.

Technological development, including satellite image analysis and remote imaging using drones, are thus required to monitor illegal mining and inappropriate employment. Alliances to manage the collected information are also needed.

What are the biggest misconceptions in society about sustainability? And how can we rectify this?

Global warming is not the only major threat facing humanity. Mitigating global warming risks are indeed an important issue for the world.

However, we should also recognize more seriously that the increasing use of mineral resources for climate mitigation purposes will carry additional risks. There is a lack of awareness about this issue, however, even between experts. Three measures are thus needed to overcome this: 1) identifying who should take responsibility for the resource use, 2) visualization of various information related to risks, and 3) sharing this knowledge.

What do you see as the greatest or most urgent challenges facing our planet?

Minimization of the environmental disturbances caused by human activity such as land use change, impacts on water resources, ecosystem disturbances, etc. As mitigation measures, it is vital to promote the recovery and recycling of secondary resources, properly control the emission of pollutants, and adequately manage post-mining sites, including rehabilitation and water treatment.