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Feature

Pollution from a smoke stack.

Global warming is caused by carbon dioxide and other air pollution that collect in the atmosphere. And like a thickening blanket, they trap the sun's heat and cause the planet to warm up.

Services industries and global warming

From eNews, Nov. 9, 2006

The shift toward a service-based economy won't automatically reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the air, a University of Minnesota researcher has found. His research contradicts assumptions about global warming often preferred by some economists and national policy experts.

Sangwon Suh, an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota's bioproducts and biosystems engineering department, uses a "lifecycle assessment" approach to quantify the environmental effect of products and services, taking into account all the materials and energy used to create a product or a service throughout its lifecycle.

For this research, Suh analyzed 44 emissions generated by service industries--retail, hospitals or real estate, for example--which comprise more than 60 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product and are an increasingly large part of the U.S. economy. Some leading development economists have the idea that the total amount of greenhouse gases emitted will be reduced as the economy shifts toward more services and less heavy industry, because service industries are "cleaner."

But Suh found that's not necessarily true.

While service industries directly create only about 5 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions themselves, when the entire life cycle of a service-related product is taken into account the picture changes dramatically. Such industries consume large quantities of electricity, natural gas, transportation, building installations and manufactured goods, which generate greenhouse gases.

U of M Moment
Listen to Sangwon Suh, from the U's bioproducts and biosystems engineering department, talk about his research on global warming at University of Minnesota Moment.

Additionally, while one service transaction may create only a small amount of greenhouse gases, the increasing volume of transactions as the service industry expands means the total greenhouse gases produced in the U.S. economy could go up.

Suh said his research shows that more practical and innovative solutions are needed to solve the global warming problem. Some economists are advocating that development is the answer to pollution and poverty in poor countries, as service becomes the dominating sector in the course of development. If the United States, the most developed country in the world, is already the biggest greenhouse gas producer, then it doesn't make sense that development will be the answer to poor countries' problems, he says.

This study is part of an ongoing series of research and was published in the Nov. 1 issue of Environment, Science and Technology, a semi-monthly journal published by the American Chemical Society.