Infrastructure, Energy & MaterialsApril 21, 2020

Thinking Differently About Sustainability in Energy & Materials

As we look toward the future of industry when we emerge from…
Avatar Mark Bese

As we look toward the future of industry when we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, how can the energy & materials think differently about the how it can make the world more sustainable? An approach that looks at both the reduction in environmental footprint and what companies can do through their products and services to help their customers decrease their own footprints points to a way forward.

What is an environmental handprint and how can it be created?

Energy and materials are fundamental to life. Petrochemicals, for instance, are part of almost every product that benefits business and society, from the detergents we buy to the mobile devices we rely on or the solar panels that generate renewable energy. Metals like iron and copper are integral to our transport, communication and energy infrastructures, buildings and industry. But producing and using these products and services also carries environmental impacts such as emissions, resource consumption and eco-toxicity. Organizations can and must work to shrink this environmental footprint, but they can never reduce it to zero.

So, how can this industry continue to meet the requirements of modern life without negatively impacting the future of our planet? An environmental handprint could provide the answer.

What are footprints and handprints?

Lifecycle analysis expert Greg Norris provides some helpful definitions:

Footprints are the environmental and social impacts of the processes that sustain us.

(These processes sustain us by directly or indirectly supplying every good and service we buy or experience.)

Handprints are changes to environmental and social impacts that we cause outside of our footprints. Handprints reflect the positive impacts a company’s products and services have in enabling its customers to reduce their footprints or avoided emissions.

With footprints, we tend to use positive numbers to reflect burdens or detrimental impacts. For example, a carbon footprint of 2 tons CO2 is worse than a carbon footprint of 1 ton CO2. With handprints, we also use positive numbers but they reflect benefits or positive impacts – a handprint of 2 tons CO2 is better than a handprint of 1 ton CO2.

A natural goal is to shrink our footprint and grow our handprint. We sometimes use the term “Net Positive” to refer to having a handprint larger than our footprint.

Measuring change

To effectively contribute to Net Positive status, the organization’s handprint should correspond with its footprint. By measuring using the same indicators – such as CO2 emissions or energy consumption – for both the handprint and the footprint, companies can create a clear picture of the balance between their negative and positive impacts on the environment.

Handprints are created by actions, not objects. They entail innovation across products, processes and value chains, creating positive change beyond the “business as usual” (BAU) scenario. This makes BAU a useful benchmark for measuring and growing the handprint, based on two fundamental questions:

  • How has the organization’s action reduced or avoided the footprints that BAU would have created?
  • What benefits did it create that would not have occurred in BAU?

Creating a handprint

Energy & Materials companies have large environmental footprints and it’s difficult for them to completely offset the CO2 emissions, energy consumption and pollution their operations produce. But by enabling positive environmental and social impacts outside of those footprints they can create a handprint that helps. In this case, they are compensating for the footprint that they are unable to reduce.

For example, reforestation programs can offset CO2 emissions. Ocean cleanup projects help to offset plastic production. And investing in renewable energy farms is a way to offset energy consumption.

The handprint created by efforts like these adds a valuable, positive dimension to the company’s overall environmental performance and contributes to offset its environmental impact.

Tapping the virtual world

One way that Dassault Systèmes is growing its own handprint is by empowering Energy & Materials companies to meet the challenge of reducing their footprints – for example, through the virtual modeling of business and operations.

To optimize safety and operational efficiency it’s imperative that Energy & Materials companies mitigate the risk of failure, optimize asset management, project quality control, and ensure the highest safety standards at every stage of the lifecycle. Traditionally, this has entailed big investments in building resource-intensive research programs or failed industrial projects to understand how every system and process will behave in different scenarios, but simulation technology is changing that and bringing added environmental benefits.

By using real-world data to create and test their systems in virtual environment, Energy & Materials companies can predict and avoid operational issues and create scientifically accurate models of their environmental impacts. These environments are enabling them to think about processes in new ways and identify innovations that can bring positive change.

Catalyzing CO2 reductions

Producing chemicals from oil can be a slow and energy-hungry process. In fact, the petrochemical industry currently accounts for 3% of the global CO2 footprint. By finding more efficient ways to do that – such as developing a new catalyst to speed up the process – organizations in this industry can help reduce energy consumption and create additional cost benefits. A catalyst improvement of just 1%, adopted by every petrochemical organization, would correspond to offsetting emissions coming from 1.5 million cars driven yearly.

Leading the efficiency charge

In the iron and steel industry – which contributes 5% of the global CO2 footprint – thinking differently about the use of heat is helping to cut carbon emissions. Traditionally, steel production involves cooling and reheating the metal before it is shaped. But cutting out the cooling stage and heating the metal continuously until it is formed into products – a method known as “hot charging” – can enable manufacturers to reduce energy use and realize a minimum potential  of 4% improvement in scheduling efficiency. If every industry player adopted hot charging, the iron and steel industry’s CO2 emissions would correspond to providing energy to 2 million households a whole year.

Making a difference

As these examples show, no footprint reduction is too small to make a difference that could extend across the planet, bringing sustainability and other benefits to the business, the wider industry and the people who rely on them.

Dassault Systèmes is proud to be an enabler for sustainable design, engineering, simulation, manufacturing, operations, and data management across the Energy & Materials community.

Visit to find out more.

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