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Beyond Carbon Metrics

Over the last 30 years, the reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, measured in tons of “carbon equivalents," has become the paramount objective in the fight against climate change. Instead of reconciling our economic system with the planet’s natural limits, we are redefining nature to fit within our economic system.

BERLIN – Over the last ten years, “climate change” has become almost synonymous with “carbon emissions.” The reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, measured in tons of “carbon equivalents” (CO2e) has emerged as the paramount objective in the quest to preserve the planet. But such a simplistic approach cannot possibly resolve the highly complex and interconnected ecological crises that we currently face.

Global environmental policy’s single-minded focus on “carbon metrics” reflects a broader obsession with measurement and accounting. The world runs on abstractions – calories, miles, pounds, and now tons of CO2e – that are seemingly objective and reliable, especially when embedded in “expert” (often economic) language. As a result, we tend to overlook the effects of each abstraction’s history, and the dynamics of power and politics that continue to shape it.

One key example of a powerful and somewhat illusory global abstraction is the gross domestic product (GDP), which was adopted as the main measure of a country’s economic development and performance after World War II, when world powers were building international financial institutions that were supposed to reflect relative economic power. Today, however, GDP has become a source of widespread frustration, as it fails to reflect the realities of people’s lives. Like a car’s high beams, abstractions can be very illuminating; but they can also render invisible what lies outside their light.

Nonetheless, GDP remains by far the dominant measure of economic prosperity, reflecting the obsession with universality that accompanied the spread of capitalism worldwide. Complex, nuanced, and qualitative imaginings that reflect local specificities are simply not as appealing as linear, overarching, and quantitative explanations.

When it comes to climate change, this preference translates into single-minded support for solutions that marginally reduce “net” carbon emissions – solutions that may impede broad economic transformations or undermine communities’ capacity to define specific problems and develop appropriate solutions. This approach can be traced back to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where climate policy embarked on a rocky and violent path of forgotten alternatives. In the course of the last quarter century, at least three critical mistakes were made.

First, governments introduced the CO2e unit of calculation to quantify in a consistent manner the effects of disparate greenhouse gases, such as CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide. The variations among these gases – in terms of their warming potential, how long they remain in the atmosphere, where they appear, and how they interact with local ecosystems and economies – are profound. A single unit of measure simplifies matters considerably, allowing policymakers to pursue one blanket solution aimed at meeting a specific overarching target.

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Second, the UN climate change convention emphasized “end of pipe” techniques (methods aimed at removing contaminants from the atmosphere). This enabled decision-makers to deflect attention away from the more politically challenging objective of limiting the activities producing those emissions in the first place.

Third, policymakers decided to focus on “net” emissions, considering biological processes involving land, plants, and animals together with those associated with the burning of fossil fuels. Just like industrial facilities, paddy fields and cows were treated as emissions sources, and tropical forests, monoculture tree plantations and bogs as emission sinks. Policymakers began to seek solutions that involved offsetting emissions abroad, rather than cutting them at home (or at the source).

By 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was introduced, “more flexibility” was the order of the day, and trading in emissions certificates (or permits to pollute) was the preferred policy option. Nearly two decades later, the effort to offset emissions is not only entrenched in climate politics; it has also made its way into the broader environmental-policy debate.

New markets for so-called “ecosystem services” are emerging all over the world. For example, “wetland mitigation banking” in the United States is one of the older such markets. It entails the preservation, enhancement, or creation of, say, a wetland or stream that offsets the adverse impacts of a planned project on a similar ecosystem elsewhere. This is done by issuing certificates that can be traded. “Biodiversity offsetting” schemes work in much the same way: A company or individual can purchase “biodiversity credits” to offset their “ecological footprint.”

If these schemes sound a little too convenient, that is because they are. In fact, they are based on the same faulty concept as emissions trading, and in some cases, they actually translate biodiversity and ecosystems into CO2e. Instead of changing our economic system to make it fit within the planet’s natural limits, we are redefining nature so that it fits within our economic system – and, in the process, precluding other forms of knowledge and real alternatives.

Now, in the wake of last December’s climate summit in Paris, the world is on the verge of taking yet another wrong turn, by embracing the idea of “negative emissions,” which assumes that new technologies will be able to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Yet such technologies have yet to be invented, and even if they were, their implementation would be highly risky.

Rather than pursue proven solutions – leaving fossil fuels in the ground, moving away from industrial agriculture toward agro-ecology, creating no-waste economies, and restoring natural ecosystems – we are counting on some miraculous innovation to save us, deus ex machina, just in the nick of time. The folly of this approach should be obvious.

If carbon metrics continue to shape climate policy, new generations will know only a carbon-constrained – and, if they are lucky, a low-carbon – world. Instead of pursuing such a simplistic vision, we must pursue richer strategies aimed at transforming our economic systems to work within – and with – our natural environment. For that, we will need a new way of thinking that spurs active engagement to reclaim and conserve the spaces where alternative approaches can grow and flourish. It will not be easy, but it will be worth it.