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 emissions.
Secondly, a decision was made to express climate change in units of calculation known as ‘CO2 equivalents.’ 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 standard number reduces a very complex problem to something that policy makers feel they can deal with through a single solution, policy, instrument and target.
A third wrong turn was to offset emissions from the burning of fossil fuels against those from biological processes involving land, plants and animals. Paddy fields and cows were turned into emissions sources, and tropical forests and bogs into emissions sinks. By the time of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, ‘more flexibility’ had become the watchword of the day, and trading in emissions certificates (or permits to pollute) the preferred policy option. But such trading has since been used by industrialized nations to dodge some of their own domestic CO2 reduction commitments in exchange for financial contributions to cuts beyond their borders. In this process, policy-makers were steered towards an even more carbon-centered worldview.
Today, we see new markets for so called ‘ecosystem services’ spreading all over the world, including ‘wetland’ or ‘mitigation banking,’ ‘biodiversity offsetting,’ and ‘forest credits.’ These schemes not only copy the faulty conceptual principles of emissions trading, but in some cases they actually translate biodiversity and ecosystems into carbon equivalents. 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.
In the aftermath of the climate summit in Paris in December 2015, the world is on the verge of taking yet another wrong turn by embracing the idea of “negative emissions,” with the goal of reducing net emissions to zero by using new technologies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. This strategy implies that we can continue to produce emissions so long as more techniques are invented to suck carbon out at a later stage—instead of embarking on a more radical trajectory now that leaves fossil fuels in the ground, transforms our agricultural systems, and restores natural ecosystems. But this is a myth: we can’t continue to emit massive amounts of CO2, and even establish new coal-burning power plants, in the vague hope that new technologies will address climate change successfully.
The poster child for this new approach is “Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage” (or BECCS). BECCS entails the planting of huge quantities of grass and trees, and then burning their biomass to generate electricity, capturing the CO2 that is emitted, and pumping it into geological reservoirs underground. Such technologies might or might not work, but they are riddled with practical challenges and carry the risk of future leakages which would have major social and environmental consequences.
What’s clear from this gallop through recent history is that the dominance of carbon metrics has increased as a result of each iteration in global environmental policy. Since ‘what gets measured determines what gets done’ (and left undone), this is an extremely important development. But how have we allowed ourselves to be fooled in such a way? One possible answer is that we have taken so many wrong turns in the past few decades, and each one of them has further narrowed our vision of what is wrong and what is possible in the future. In the monoculture of carbon metrics, real alternatives become literally unthinkable.
The contemporary obsession with measurement and accounting goes far beyond the environmental sphere. The world runs on abstractions: calories, meters, kilos, GDP, and now carbon. The creation and adoption of the metric system itself was a decisive step in forging a truly globalized world. We seldom remember that these abstractions have a history that profoundly determines them in many ways. And we often forget how they hide questions of power and politics behind expert language which is apparently ‘objective.’
An illustrative example is the measurement of economic output in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), which was innovative at the time of the Second World War but has since become a source of frustration from which there seems no escape. GDP hogs the limelight like an all-powerful autocrat—over-emphasizing the money economy, consigning non-economic values to a secondary position, and distorting decision-making. Quantification can be illuminating, but it can also act as a blindfold. Like the headlamps of a car on full beam, a small part of the road ahead may be crystal clear, but the darkness of the night is all the more enveloping. We run a similar risk in making carbon the sole negative measure of prosperity.
There’s a special characteristic to the measurement systems which dominate societies today—their demand for totality and universality, which is closely connected to the emergence of the capitalist world system. In that process quantification took over from qualitative thinking; linear understandings of change replaced more complex imaginations; and standard measures destroyed the nuances of local specificities. Translated into the climate change arena, this means that anything that marginally reduces net carbon emissions has to be the right thing to do—even if it prevents a fundamental transformation of the economy or reduces the ability of communities to define problems and solutions on their own terms.
These effects can clearly be observed in the European Emission Trading Scheme (or EU ETS). While its proponents argue that this scheme has reduced the problem by setting a clear cap on emissions, its impact on climate change is questionable. The German Energy Transition, for example, has little to do with EU ETS, and the existence of the scheme has helped fossil fuel companies and car lobbyists to fight for a single ‘technology neutral’ climate or emissions reduction target, thereby weakening calls for a wider range of renewable energy targets, energy efficiency targets, and fuel quality standards.
The obsession with carbon metrics helps to promote nuclear energy, natural gas extraction (including fracking), biofuels and other risky and harmful technologies, so long as they can claim to emit less carbon than was expected to be emitted without them. But none of this will bring us any closer to the transformational changes in self and society that are required to deal with climate change, and that depend on the preservation and utilization of diverse, non-linear ideas and approaches.
As the writer and activist Boaventura de Souza Santos puts it, the failure to recognize different ways of knowing is an act of “cognitive injustice” or “epistemicide.” ‘Ecological epistemicide’ places the world at risk of losing a huge variety of knowledge, wisdom and practices that could help us to confront the multiple crises that we face: for example, the diverse systems of agroecology that are often ignored in favor of “climate smart agriculture” whose impact can be measured in carbon equivalents. So what’s to be done?
Wiring our brains into a new measurement system doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long-term process. A metric mind requires a metric mentality, a way of thinking of its own, of apprehending the world in terms of figures. Under the dominance of carbon metrics, new generations will only know a carbon-constrained (or—one day perhaps—a low carbon) world. But that is a greatly-reduced vision of the future. Better and richer strategies require a different way of thinking and knowing as well as active engagement to reclaim and conserve the spaces where these alternatives can grow and flourish.
By contrast, the climate agreements signed in Paris fully embody the rule of carbon metrics, cementing a pattern that may well be here to stay. This pattern constitutes one more chapter in the long history of quantification under capitalism, but it takes it to new heights by embedding a narrow and self-limiting set of indicators into an increasingly problematic discourse of ‘de-carbonization.’ By doing so the prospects for more fundamental changes in society will be set back still further, despite the fact that such transformations are the only way to tackle the challenges of climate change with any real conviction.
For a longer version of the arguments in this article, see “Carbon Metrics. Global abstractions and ecological epistemicide.”
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