The importance of looking outside of the carbon footprint

Are we spending so much time looking at carbon, that we are failing to notice other things that matter just as much, or even more, when it comes to saving mother earth? As a child, I loved running around catching butterflies with my net on a summer’s day – but where did all the butterflies go[1]?

There is currently an overwhelming focus on reducing carbon emissions. It is impressive that a relatively inert and harmless gas has become the talking point of global leaders, the focus of the scientific community and preoccupation of economists and industrialists. It has its own measurement system, accounting system and trading system, enabling producers to offset emissions in the quest for carbon neutrality. But what happens in the real world when a forest intended to offset emissions from a mobile phone producer fails to flourish or is turned to ash by forest fires[2]?

In the following simple Google Trends keyword analysis of worldwide news articles published between 2004 till now, we see how the tiny voices of biodiversity and pollinators are drowned out by the ever-louder bullhorn of carbon.

Google term search function accurate as of 09/03/2022

So why does carbon hog the limelight?

Carbon is relatively easy to measure, especially in the context of a power plant, a motor vehicle or rail system. Are governments creating policies around carbon because it is easy to measure? Are the media obsessed with carbon because it is an easy, frightening story to tell? And are the scientific community overly focusing on carbon because it drives their funding and gets them published? Or is this partly the result of having generated a “fake feel-good factor” – in that we feel somewhat enabled and focussed in our quest to save the natural world, by focussing on this one atom?

Humanity has an insatiable appetite for energy. Feeding that appetite by unlocking vast ancient stores of subterranean hydrocarbons, releasing them into the atmosphere in the geological blink of an eye intuitively seems like a bad idea.

Associating carbon emissions with impending global catastrophe is a compelling story and one that the media, scientists, and politicians are keen to tell. And there is a clear need for substantial carbon emission reduction. But it is equally clear that it is like trying to halt the proverbial super tanker, and that political commitments for 2040 or 2050 are going to fail to deliver[3].

The hockey stick strategy – leave all action till last minute – is never brilliant and in the context of changing our negative impact on the planet to a positive one, it is detrimental.

It is a truism that what gets measured gets done. But the logical implication is that what is difficult to measure or does not get measured at all, does not get done. Or worse even, what if the measurement is wrong? Would that imply that what gets done is wrong, following the law of unintended consequences?

Given the complexity of the natural world, and the interface with humanity, the carbon agenda is distracting attention from other factors that matter just as much, or more[4].

The mainstream narrative is that CO2 emissions drive climate change, which disrupts weather patterns through warming, which causes biodiversity loss. But there are other human activities that are equally important to address and change.

Does climate change cause forest fires, or does mismanagement of forests play a significant role too? Does global warming cause desertification or does land and water misuse cause desertification that disrupts climate? Does global warming cause intricate ecosystems to disrupt, with caterpillars and butterflies being out of sync with hungry birds, or does monocultures and chemical agriculture kill our pollinators?

Compared to halting the oil tanker, better management of forests, water and soils offers a more direct route to dealing with these problems – and building resilience. But if the world’s attention is obsessed with slaying the carbon emissions dragon, these opportunities might be missed.

Biodiversity and soil health are as important – if not more important – than a single measure of a single element in the periodic table. But bizarrely appear to be a much harder sell. And even though the recordable and measurable positive impact on soil health and on biodiversity, is directly linked to our own well-being and economy[5].

Amongst the amplified voices of the carbon lobby, we need to also listen to the quieter voices. Especially if we want to allow our children and future generations to grow up in a world where they can catch a butterfly on a summer’s day, admire the magnificent insects and all the other beautiful animals of this world.

What is SI’s role in all this?

At Strategic Innovation, our passion for sustainability includes a desire to see a revolution in the food production system. We work with our clients to explore opportunities to reduce food loss and food waste, and to rediscover circular principles along the way from farm to fork, bait to plate and grain to glass.

Maybe most significant is the opportunity to think about agriculture in new ways. Regenerative approaches hold huge potential to feed the world while protecting it by working with, rather than against, nature. More on that in our next post.

References

[1] Hallmann, et. al., (2017). More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLoS ONE. 12. 1-21. 10.1371/journal.pone.0185809 Link: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/320474864_More_than_75_percent_decline_over_27_years_in_total_flying_insect_biomass_in_protected_areas

[2] Hodgson, C., (2021). US forest fires threaten carbon offsets as company-linked trees burn. Link: US forest fires threaten carbon offsets as company-linked …https://www.ft.com › content 

[3] Allen, M., et al. IPCC, (2018). Summary for Policymakers. In: Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. Link: https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/

[4] Payton, L., (2021). Soil Association, Saving Our Soils, Healthy soils for our climate, nature and health. Link: https://www.soilassociation.org/media/22963/saving-our-soils-report.pdf

[5] V. El Mujtar, N. Muñoz, B. Prack Mc Cormick, M. Pulleman, P. Tittonell,. (2019). Role and management of soil biodiversity for food security and nutrition; where do we stand?, Global Food Security, Volume 20, Pages 132-144, ISSN 2211-9124. Link: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gfs.2019.01.007