Be­yond car­bon met­rics

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

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 sin­gle­minded 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.

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.

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