Saturday, July 5, 2014

Climate Misconception #7: The goal is for every organization to become carbon neutral

Has the carbon neutrality fad subsided?  It seemed a few years ago that every business, agency, college or other outfit wanted to achieve that vaunted status.  One hears less today.

Perhaps this post is unnecessary, but in case there are other carbon neutralists in the audience, a few points deserve consideration.

First, carbon accounting suffers mightily from the economic calculation problem.  It is difficult, bordering on impossible, for any fairly complex operation to determine its direct and indirect draw on fossil fuels.  One would need to know all the inputs into the inputs, and the inputs into them, and so on all up the line.  In practice carbon accountants rely on standardized measures of the carbon content of various items, but these are approximate at best.

Second, many of the accounting ploys in this line of work violate the strictures of the carbon cycle, as described in previous posts.  You can see this from the claim that arises from time to time that a particular enterprise is carbon negative.  No it’s not, at least not unless it engages in long-term sequestration of carbon that exceeds its own use, and no one I know of does that.

The carbon negative folks treat carbon uptake of vegetation like a simple deduction from the impacts of their other activities, thereby isolating this one moment of carbon flux from the larger cycle of which it’s a part.  (My own college does exactly this, by the way.)  It’s like saying that an airport must have a big population because so many people arrive there each day.

And of course the carbon accounting exercise often makes use of offsets, where the organization that purchases them gets credit for the carbon uptake of vegetation growth somewhere else–again in isolation from the carbon cycle as a whole.

The good news is that the carbon neutrality business is nearly carbon neutral.  It’s an unproductive use of human intelligence, but not much more than that.  The opportunity cost, however, is in what this intelligence could have accomplished if it were directed toward a more consequential goal.  Above all, organizations should give attention to how a significant shift in climate policy would affect their own operations—they should forecast and prepare.

Take my college, for instance.  They send students out to measure tree circumferences in the campus forest so they can broadcast their climate bona fides.  What they aren’t doing is examining what a dramatic rise in fossil fuel prices would do to their ability to attract students, especially commuters and those who come from out of state.  How would it affect their conference business?  The cost of their academic schedule compared to alternative start and end dates?  As we’ll see later on, there will be substantial, unavoidable economic dislocation if and when we ever start to get serious about phasing out fossil fuels.  Why not plan ahead?

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