"Carbon neutral" is a bad goal
Facts: "Carbon neutral" is a bad climate goal; Feelings: navigating "we" and "they"; Action: Eating as climate action
Hi friends, we’re back, tackling the climate crisis with facts, feelings, and action! I’m your fearless leader, Lund University climate scientist Kim Nicholas. Let’s dive in!
Facts: “Carbon Neutral” is a bad goal
A recent study of first movers who are already “carbon neutral” showed that they mostly used magical accounting handwaving, not real emissions reductions, to get there.
Depressingly, Aaron and colleagues found that just 23% of total emissions reductions were “direct”— actually burning less fossil fuels on campus, replacing fossil-based with clean electricity, or reducing employee travel.
Most of this 23% came from the regional electricity grid getting cleaner over time (“Scope 2 reductions” in the chart below). Cleaner grids are good! But they’re a result of larger climate policy shifts, not university carbon neutral declarations. Womp womp!
The remaining 77% of the carbon counted towards institutional neutrality goals came from sketchy sources that may not truly reduce emissions. The paper goes into detail about why these approaches, like using bioenergy and relying heavily on voluntary carbon offsets, are problematic from both scientific and climate justice perspectives.
Aaron described the reliance on accounting, rather than real emissions reductions, as an example of “Goodhart’s law”— where decisionmakers optimise for the metric they’re given, not the intent behind that metric.
(Remember, to stop global warming, humans will have to completely stop adding carbon to the atmosphere, which requires virtually eliminating carbon pollution. Here’s a refresher on net zero and what it will take to stabilise the climate from We Can Fix It, May 2021).
Importantly, strategies pursued by carbon-neutral universities so far are not scalable. They do not match the investments and approaches needed to deliver a clean energy society.
For example, compared with the strategies needed to decarbonise the whole US, the universities have under-invested in energy efficiency by a factor of about 3, and in electrification by more than a factor of 10, while putting about twice the emphasis on biofuels. (See Figure 5 in the paper.)
Making climate goals meaningful
In sum, given current rules and norms, making “carbon neutrality” the goal is likely to incentivise accounting tricks.
To accelerate the climate policy and market shifts needed, institutions should instead set a date (say, 2027!) to be “fossil free” for its own operations (Scope 1) and purchased electricity (Scope 2). This shift would make carbon neutrality a milestone achieved along the way to real decarbonisation.
Climate goals that leave fossil fuels in the ground are critical. Current initiatives focused on “neutrality” as the end goal, like the EU’s 100 Climate-Neutral Cities, risk following the path of the carbon-neutral university pioneers: pursuing offsets and other accounting schemes, instead of real reductions.
Feelings: Navigating “we” and “they”
What does a fair response to the climate crisis look like? Who should do what?
Questions of fairness, responsibility, and justice are at the heart of motivating and directing climate action. They are central topics at the annual international climate negotiations starting soon (COP 27), where views… vary widely.
A recent essay beautifully illustrated varying perspectives on climate justice from different personal points of view. I want to share some of it with you here.
Subina Shrestha grew up in Nepal, where she learned “we [the Global South] must adapt because there is no other choice, and they [the Global North] must curb emissions because they are responsible for the problem.”
Now she’s pursuing a PhD in Norway, where discussions with her colleagues center around how “we” need to radically cut emissions, because “they” suffer the impacts.
Subina writes about her lived experience in navigating shifting aspirations and opportunities between “we” and “they”:
A month into my PhD, I began to realize that I was struggling to fit in because the discussions centered around how ‘we’ need to do more, cut down emissions radically because ‘they’ suffer the impacts. This reversal of ‘we’ and ‘they’ in my workplace left me stunned, to say the least, and I began questioning: in my current situation, which ‘we’ do I belong in?”
Most of my colleagues have travelled around the world, not just Europe. Their passports are inherently more powerful than mine… What is the basic standard for most of my colleagues is, in fact, a luxury for me…. I can’t help but ask if it is fair that they talk about radical lifestyle transformations, when we have always aspired to look upon their everyday?
What do you think? How do you relate to “we” and “they” when it comes to climate action?
Action: Eating as climate action
Now to combine two of my favorite things: eating tasty food + climate action!
We vote with our forks three times a day for the health of the living world, and our bodies.
Here’s some ways we can do better. It’s an excerpt from “Food Shouldn’t Come from a Factory,” the chapter in Under the Sky We Make where I confess that I’m a turkey heiress.
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” -Michael Pollan
“Our research showed that plant-based diets were the highest-impact personal climate action when it comes to food.
A global analysis by the World Resources Institute found that a menu of twenty-two solutions was needed to achieve a sustainable food system; shifting to plant-based diets was the most effective.
The personal dietary change with the single biggest environmental benefit is cutting beef, which uses far more resources and produces far more pollution than other options.
Analyses have shown that we simply cannot meet even the 2°C goal without reducing today’s meat consumption.
If eating animals is part of a regenerative future, the livestock that remain will live on leftovers, not on food that people could eat. They are certain to be a much smaller part of a healthy and sustainable diet than what we eat in wealthier countries today.”
—Me in Under the Sky We Make
Okay, what does eating plants look like?
So glad you asked!
Egg and poultry: 2.5 times too high
fruits and vegetables (aim for twice as much; to cover half your plate)
legumes, like lentils and peas (aim for 5x more!)
nuts (also aim for 5x)
Aim for “Just right”: if you eat animal products, eat no more than:
1 glass of milk, or 1 ounce of cheese per day (about the size of your thumb)
2 eggs per week
2 servings of chicken and fish per week (1 serving size = deck of playing cards)
2 beef burgers per month
Here’s what your average plate should look like:
For some inspo, Harvard public health folks have a sample meal plan that fits the planetary health diet:
Happy sustainable eating!
See you on the Internet
Hey, I’m joining TEDx Glasgow next week for “The Future We Choose”— sign up for your free ticket to this virtual gathering! It’s Tuesday, Nov 1 at 18:00 GMT. (That’s 11am in California, 2pm New York, 19:00 Sweden— gotta love the week where Europe has had daylight savings, and North America has not!)
Dearly, by Margaret Atwood. This was the 1st time we’ve read poetry for my climate fiction book club, and I loved it. Reading a poem aloud is an amazing way to start a conversation. It really cut to the heart of things in a handful of words. “Faint Hopes” might be the best thing I’ve ever read about techno-optimism.
Take care friends! Go for a walk and appreciate something seasonal today!