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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.

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