Carbon tunnel vision: 5 reasons why you should go beyond measuring CO2

Nina van Rijn

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4 minutes

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Opinion

It’s important to also realize that global warming is not our only problem. Now that the world’s eye is on the environment, it’s a good idea to tackle our environmental issues simultaneously, and let go of our carbon tunnel vision.

February 7, 2022
Image: 
Daniel Jerez

It has taken a while, but there finally seems to be a consensus among world (business) leaders that the climate crisis is an urgent problem and that action is needed. That’s fantastic, of course. But it’s important to also realize that global warming is not our only problem. Now that the world’s eye is on the environment, it’s a good idea to tackle our environmental issues simultaneously, and let go of our carbon tunnel vision.

1. If we fail to safeguard biodiversity, all work on fighting climate change will be in vain

The main goal of combating climate change, is saving all life on earth. But solving our climate crisis is not enough to ensure the survival of animal and plant species. In fact, if we are looking at the extent to which we are in overshoot of our planet’s carrying capacity, we are doing even worse on biodiversity than on climate change.

Planetary boundaries
Based on Steffen et al. 2015

We are rapidly losing biosphere integrity (that is, we are causing biodiversity loss and extinctions) as a result of our demand for food, water and natural resources. However, KPMG shows that less than a quarter of large companies at risk from biodiversity loss are actually reporting on this topic. We think that needs to change. So we’re happy that biodiversity is in scope of mandatory CSRD reporting.

Yes, tracking your greenhouse gas emissions is a great starting point. If you’re doing this, you’re already doing great. But let’s emphasis the words ‘starting point’. Once you’ve started tracking your impact, continue adding pieces – such as impact on biodiversity – to your puzzle.

2. Chemical pollution has passed safe limits for humanity and ecosystems, and it should stop

As you can see in the graph above, ‘novel entities’ has not been quantified yet. However, two weeks ago, a group of scientists managed to estimate how we’re doing in terms of novel entities (previously called ‘chemical pollution’. Answer: terribly.  

We’ve introduced an estimated 350,000 chemicals to our planet: chemicals and other new types of engineered materials or organisms not previously known to Earth, as well as naturally occurring elements mobilized by anthropogenic activities (e.g. heavy metals). Think of plastics and synthetic chemicals like pesticides, industrial compounds and antibiotics. These chemicals threaten Earth’s systems to such an extent, that we’ve crossed the limit of what our planet can handle: we’re pushing Earth outside its stable state.

It's quite telling that the total mass of plastics on earth is now larger than the total mass of all living mammals.

3. Water use has a direct effect on people’s lives, and should gain more corporate attention

We are unsustainably using our water resources. A quarter of the world’s population lives in countries with extremely high water stress. Extremely high water stress means that averagely, 80% of the available renewable water is used every year. Water reserves are limited, so when demand increases or even when short droughts occur, this can have serious effects on people’s lives.

Source: Water Risk Index

Therefore water depletion is an environmental indicator that should not be overlooked.

4. By blindly focussing on climate change, we divert our attention away from the real problem: overconsumption and -exploitation

Okay, time for some opinion from the writer of this article, Nina van Rijn. This issue is honestly keeping me from sleeping at night. We are replacing our fossil fuel cars with electric ones. We are replacing our grey energy with green energy. We are replacing kerosene with biofuels. All important steps towards decreasing our carbon footprint. But it seems that most efforts in fighting climate change have an underlying objective of maintaining the West’s extremely high levels of consumption. What about replacing fossil fuel cars with… no cars? And replacing kerosine flights with… no flights? And what about trying to replace grey energy with no energy?

Surely, there are large scale efforts of decreasing our energy use, but they are all focussed on creating the same amount of goods or ensuring the same amount of TV-time with less energy. Energy efficiency, not reduction. Shouldn’t we be consuming less?

It is my fear that all this focus on greening our behaviour, diverts attention from the actual problem: our behaviour itself. We have been exploiting the earth as though its carrying capacity is infinite. And we have been focussing on economic growth and consumption as though there is no such thing as a carrying capacity. If we do not change our behaviour, we will be creating new issues as we are solving the climate crisis. Replacing grey energy with solar power? Great idea. But we will be rapidly depleting our supply of critical metals of which the global supply is not large enough to supply the transition to renewable energy. And we might be destroying and polluting our landscapes while mining for lithium used on batteries.

Therefore, I argue that – apart from carbon emissions – we should also be measuring and reporting on our resource consumption and waste management.

End of plea. Thank you for your attention.

5. We should look at land system change, because the landperforms many functions in protecting earth’s balance

Humans have a long history of putting the land to their use. Forests, grasslands and wetlands are being converted to agricultural land, primarily to feed the livestock we eat. The impact on our planet is manyfold: we reduce the land’s capacity to capture carbon, we loose biodiversity, pollute our water flows and degrade the land.

With each piece of land converted, we impact the Earth’s ability to contain its stable state. Think of forests. When we loose them, we loose their ability to evapotranspirate and make rain, to capture carbon, to filter the air and water, to control floods and erosion, to sustain biodiversity, to provide us with places to recreate, et cetera.

Conclusion: We need a holistic view

Yes, carbon accounting is important. We need to understand the impact we have on our climate, as individuals and as organizations. But by turning a blind eye on the other factors important for sustaining healthy life on earth, we risk new environmental hazards.

Therefore, Salacia not only measures organization’s greenhouse gas emissions, but any environmental indicator that is expected to be significant for our clients. Think of biodiversity loss, chemical pollution, land and water pollution, energy use, material and water consumption and land use change.

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