Beyond Paris: avoiding the trap of carbon metrics

By Daniel Speich Chassé, Lili Fuhr and Camila Moreno

Instead of changing our economic system to make it fit within the
natural limits of the planet, we are redefining nature so that it fits within
the economic system.

Credit: KIWI. All
rights reserved.

Until recently terms like “carbon accounting,”
“carbon footprint,”
and “carbon offsetting”
would have raised some quizzical eyebrows among the general public. Today, such
carbon-based metrics are everywhere, but are they helpful or unhelpful in
motivating the necessary action on climate change?

Although the case for metrics may seem
incontrovertible, what is measured is always a political choice, and such
choices favor certain interests and approaches over others. In that sense the
trajectory of global environmental policy over the last 30 years is a history
of forgotten alternatives. Our worry is that transformational approaches will
be ignored if carbon-based metrics become the only indicators that are used to
guide investment decisions and set priorities for public policy. How so?

At the Earth Summit in Rio de
Janeiro in 1992, a ‘silver bullet’ was found to tackle climate change: reducing
CO2 emissions. Accordingly, the goal was to make cars and household
appliances, power plants and entire industries more efficient. This ‘end
of pipe’ approach (by which contaminants are removed at the end of a
process) deflected political attention away from the causes of climate change
and allowed policy makers to deal only with the symptoms in the form of

Secondly, a decision was made to express climate
change in units of calculation known as ‘CO2
CO2, methane and other greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide have
very different qualities when it comes to their warming potential or the number
of years they remain in the atmosphere. They also appear in specific natural surroundings,
and interact with local ecosystems and economies in different ways. Expressing
all of these different qualities and potential impacts in one …read more

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