Readapt economic systems to work within our natural environment

Global environmental policy's single-minded focus on "carbon metrics" reflects a broader obsession with measurement and accounting.

By Camila Moreno, Daniel Speich Chassé, and Lili Fuhr (ECOLOGY)

Published: Thu 31 Mar 2016, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Thu 31 Mar 2016, 9:05 AM

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.
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. Second, the UN climate change convention emphasised "end of pipe" techniques (methods aimed at removing contaminants from the atmosphere). This enabled decision-makers to deflect attention away from the politically challenging objective of limiting the activities producing those emissions.
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.
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, 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.
Camila Moreno is a researcher at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro. Daniel Speich Chassé is a professor of history at the University of Lucerne. Lili Fuhr heads the Ecology and Sustainable Development Department at the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Berlin

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