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  • AntoineR

"Carbon Neutral", "Carbon Offsetting", "Carbon Removal": It's Time to End the Carbon Supremacy

Updated: May 18, 2023

How many times per week do we get to hear terms like “CO2 emissions”, “Carbon offset”, “Carbon removal", "Carbon capture", “Carbon neutral"...? It all feels like we’re living in a world where carbon is the main character.

A dog with a pet cone sitting in the street

Sure, we need to curb CO2 (and other GHGs) emissions, but that’s not the only thing we need to do. Maximizing for one parameter when solving a problem comes at the expense of other things.

So, why have we become addicted to “carbon”?

📐 We like to measure things. In fact, it’s hard to understand something you can’t measure. The flip side is: if you know how to measure something very well, you have a tendency to see it everywhere.

⚖️ Sustainability is a balance between environmental, economical and social dimensions. This means: if you maximize for one of these, you break the equilibrium and things aren’t in balance anymore.

Assessing products sustainability goes way beyond conducing a mere carbon assessment.

💻 If brand XYZ claims to sell “carbon neutral laptops” what does it mean? Are they using offsets? (see our opinion on these:

⚡Also, a laptop is made to be used, right? So, is my laptop still “carbon neutral” as I use it every day?

Well, to use it I need electricity and electricity needs inputs (some are clean e.g. wind, some not e.g. coal) and infrastructure to be generated. So, will the brand also offset emissions related to the electricity consumption of my laptop on a daily basis? Probably not.

Carbon assessment is not enough. It is one useful indicator out of many, but obsessing over carbon creates other issues (e.g. potential disregard of social factors).

A more comprehensive way to look at products is to conduct a life cycle assessment, i.e. look at the operational and embodied impact of the product. That is, look at the environmental effects associated with the extraction, processing, and transportation of materials used to create a product, as well as the energy consumed during its manufacturing process (embodied impact). **But also**, assess the energy & resources required for a product to function during its lifetime (operational impact).

E.g., electric vehicle:

🧩 Study the impact of the vehicle components (e.g. body shell: aluminum vs carbon fiber?), study their means of production (where are they produced? In which conditions?), study the impact of different materials on the weight of the vehicle which impacts its energy consumption, look at how recyclable they are, etc.

🔌 Look at the energy needed for the car to function, understand how electricity is produced in the region where the car is used, etc.

Looking at the whole picture: from pre-life to after-life, is much harder and requires a lot more data to be available.

That being said, it is only by asking the good questions and looking beyond just “carbon” that we will close the gap and transition to a more sustainable way of doing business 🌱



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