Carbon against money
Carbon accounting is a fast growing field of services. These professionals are playing a starring role in the blame game that is being staged as part of the mutual battle for emissions space between countries, social groups, and economic sectors. Their thoroughgoing quantification often gives me the impression of hiding more than revealing because it does not cry, sigh, or gets angry. It gives the smart impression only to want to pave the way to a bright future with access to cheap and clean energy for all. Are we going to die out smoothly on this accounting basis? Let us take a closer look.
The general recognition within the environmental movements of the climate bottleneck has, since 1995, stimulated government policies and higher education policies to train more people who can assist any decision-making process (consumptive, productive) in which emissions are (partly) a target variable (i.e. a problem). This policy mood plus the increasing climate volatility resulted in an enormous expansion of sustainability courses at almost all universities and colleges worldwide from 2000 onwards, and, consequently, a tsunami of sustainability workers (in short: SS-workers) in government institutions (environmental agencies), in company departments, in environmental (protection) societies, and in independent consultancy firms.
Now, what does their specialised assistance amount to: Of course, systematically describing emissions in relation to the operating possibilities (options) of the emission-emitting process, to enable decision-makers to gain more insight into and control over their emissions. Here are a few examples:
- Most of the assistance provided by sustainability-workers (= SS-er) involves first assessing the size of an activity (e.g. a trip, or meat consumption) per unit time, then allocating the use of transport means, fuels, and electricity during that unit time to that activity, and from the emissions of those used means expressing the total direct emissions of the activity as a percentage of, for example, the national total emissions in a certain reference year. Because it is often unclear which emissions are included in that total, and which are not, this percentage calculation is a source of much misunderstanding. For example, did that total include bunker emissions? And depending on how deeply the emissions from the inputs of that activity are included, we are then told, for example, that mining emissions account for only 2% of world emissions, up to as much as 53%.
- Including the emissions associated with the production of inputs more deeply (upstream of the production path) in the total emission calculation of a process or activity is called consumer-based accounting (= CB). Nijdam et al. (2005) calculated for example for 7 consumption domains (clothing, food, housing, furnishings, leisure, personal care, and labor) both direct (during use) and indirect (during production and waste processing phases) emissions and required land use. They conclude, for example, that "A large proportion of the environmental load of Dutch private consumption takes place abroad: For greenhouse gases this amounts to 49%".
- A second example of longitudinal estimation of the total emissions trajectory of products and services is this study from Lancaster University. Interesting because of the sharpness of the choice dilemma it generates in the decision maker. According to their analysis, a UK resident who buys a bunch of Dutch flowers (11 stems) is responsible for 31 kg of CO2-eq greenhouse gases that went into the air during all stages of production and transport of that bunch. So when someone does that weekly, his flower emissions alone (1.5 tons) comes pretty close to his total entitled share of world emissions.
- A third typical example then: Wieland & Giljum (2016) conclude in their CB-accounting study that more than one third of the greenhouse gases that are directly and indirectly released to satisfy European final demand are actually emitted in other world regions, particularly caused by the large requirements of Chinese construction materials (like cement) and manufactured fossil fuels and metal products as indirect inputs to EU’s industries and final demand. They also signalled the trend that an ever-increasing number of production steps is interlinked for the production of goods and services delivered to the EU's final demand. Ever longer chains, therefore, with ever more branching. And also that the bulk of the emissions are taking place higher and higher up the supply chain. This accounting example could feed the European strategic climate policy debate: for example the EU discussion on a carbon border tax.
One aspect of the position of SS workers immediately stands out: their simultaneous proximity and powerlessness to steering and control. I mean? The depth of their computational assistance, plus the direction of options to be evaluated, plus the timing and duration of specialist assistance are obviously determined by the decision-making entity.
Impact of carbon accounting on decision-making
In short: the SS-er is an information slave. Also called staff worker. Such people are only allowed to utter, "if you do this, probably that will happen". On call, eliminable, and without authority. This SS position is quite at odds with their self-esteem and conception of duty as a sustainabiliy scientist, because the usual definition of his home science particularly insists on an activistic attitude. Fang et al. (2018) analyzed 43 definitions of Sustainibility Science, and identified two key elements: (1) understanding human–environment interactions and (2) linking knowledge to action.
The staff function of most SS-workers does not make this linking an easy shot. Impossible in fact. Power is at the wheel, and it wants to keep it that way (and thus expand it to be sure of keeping it). Is this setup wrong? No, normally this will work quite well as long as the solution to the decision-making problem does not affect the roots (= perpetuation of power) of the line function (= decision-makers). If it does, this set-up is a big gamble.
This gamble has been taken very deliberately by both science and politics. Most people entered the sustainability science from 1995 onward out of political motives. It was their act of resistance against environmental and climate destruction. They are actually strongly motivated, highly concerned representatives of the value system of the environmental movement. These sustainability workers can be seen as the cooperative beating heart of the environmental protest movements that have very consciously made ideals their profession, in order to legitimately operate within the economy according to the prevailing societal rules, hoping in this way to reverse the collision course of the current global free-trade economy. And the education policy makers and the social pressure behind them who created and organised those studies also had the idea - or rather the hope - that by sending lots of sustainability people to the processes, total emissions could eventually be manoeuvred to a very low level.
They did estimate a lot of room to move along that track, perhaps, even then, to avoid violence, and took the gamble. A mistake? They will defend themselves by saying they relied on the power of knowledge, and will also claim that climate is now high on every decision agenda after all, and that concepts and descriptions have been developed to facilitate decision-making. Yes they will continue to defend their basic strategy: namely to operate as knowledge workers alongside line functions. My answer: those concepts are indeed practical, but climate has only entered the agenda because it is shaking all important variables of the world economy for a few years now.
Money is at the wheel
It is better to admit that it was a fallacy, albeit an understandable one.
After all, why did the Titanic sink? It was not because of the crew, no, it was because the owners locked the crew in a manoeuvring area, by setting limits to voyage time and sailing route, in which it was virtually impossible − because they had to sail through an iceberg-strewn sea at full speed at night in order to meet the time limit − not to crash into an iceberg, even if you could do all the math around it. Money was at the wheel.
The same deadly course is unfolding before our eyes on the climate stage. The U-turn (i.e. reversal of the course of the current global free-trade economy ), we're not going to make it, because everybody involved continued to worship the Holy Mass of the bosses (at the wheel), namely free trade, open markets, competition, winning and expanding and dominating as possible at all costs. Within that money and power game, it is impossible to get a strong grip on emissions.
Carbon accounting has not had a decisive impact on public awareness either; it was mainly "education for dummies". Anyone with life experience in various sectors will be able to roughly estimate how many emissions he is holding on to when he reads 'made in China' on a piece of equipment. The problem is: we know this shit, live with it, and haven't done anything with it for 20 years. Knowledge does not work, it does not seek a way out, we do not really limit, we are not really confronted, we switch a bit (by buying an electric bike for example or buying Chinese solar panels from now on) but in the end all boils down to even more direct and indirect energy consumption.
The emission calculations of the sustainability and environmental professionals are not a direct cause of the elusiveness of emissions, of course. But indirect yes, because SS-services have become an inseparable paid component of a globally spread way of pushing each other out of the way that has as a major shortcoming that its range of behavioural choices does not permit the use of a back button or brake. Within that game, the SS-er has become a counting machine that runs after the decision-makers, a specialised staff function that does not realise that it is part of a solution drive that is actually making the problem worse. The drive to win (dominate) make the deciders always only flee into thinking instead of actively putting the brakes on. Seen in this way, any form of carbon accounting continues to feed and sustain the power struggle between ruling elites and money-makers, while it is precisely this struggle that has the unrestricted grasping for energy applications as its main characteristic.
Proof? The demand for energy (and its use and emissions) has continued to grow steadily. During the year 1950 the world used 25 TWh of energy. Today our annual energy consumption is approximately 160 TWh. Since 1950 we have been pumping 2 TWh more energy into our economic system every year.. The cooperative SS mindset has contributed to the public authorities' and companies' attempt to solve the climate problem by reconciling the goat (expansion and growth) and the cabbage (climate). It has been tried and proved impossible within the boundaries set by the decision-makers. It failed. The cabbage is almost gone and the goat is fat. We are steaming at full speed towards a wall of destruction and misery.
A bottom-up approach
But let us not evaluate this loss of momentum on who is to blame, but on how SS-ers can work their way out of their embarrassing position. Well, what do you do when you're in a vehicle next to a madman who's heading straight for a wall at breakneck speed? Do you keep watching, hypnotised like a rabbit?
No, of course not. You grab the wheel and steer into a gap. Which wheel, and is there an opening at all? That last one isn't all that difficult. We can live a lot simpler. Prioritise food and housing above all else. And just give up material growth and a lot of unnecessary comfort and pleasuries for the time being.
But then: which wheel to grasp in order to really steer towards emission-free societies?
Stringent restraining regulation is at the social level only possible if the attribution of responsibility is considered correct by everyone. Steering at country or sector level is therefore a complete dead end. Between countries and between sectors you cannot find a clear (universal) yardstick (benchmark) to accurately determine everyone's emission limitation, because (a) they can argue in too many ways that not they but other countries or sectors are for all sorts of (historical) reasons more responsible or less essential than themselves, (b) there is no central command economy in most countries, so everybody start switching choices when they feel restrictions coming, disappear here, come there, and thus undermine the apportionment of responsability underpinning the restrictions. In this very diverse field of countries and sectors, the only fair measure of 'equal rules for everyone' is neither applicable nor workable. The result is a slippery slope of endless negotiation, buyouts, derogations, compensations, and finally, smart and cunning evasion.
If that wheel cannot reach it, then what is?
Let us face it: we need to attack this matter at a more fundamental, firmer and uniform accountability point to get it moving safely and securely. Making the individual liable is the only way out (see But then how in the article "Current emission plans are crap"). At that elementary level resides enough power of recognition, affection and connection to evolve a new wheel. At this moment the awareness of the climate problem among citizens and farmers is at least as high as it is in boardrooms and government offices. But their thinking is less detached from feelings as in science and management. So, by taking the matter closer to the spot (the heart) where anger resides and love is awake − i.e. a bottom up approach − massive willpower (= credit balance of feelings associated with a situation) can be developed to radically eliminate (which is the bottleneck for a fast and serious moderation of high-carbon lifestyles).
The SS workers should therefore seriously consider leaving the academic and non-academic service institutions for good, or launching an uprising there − given the stakes, this would not be disproportionate. They can then help urban neighbourhoods and villages determine how to reverse the deadly dynamics of today's long-chain economy, and join in the formation of a coherent people's power to enforce that solution.
Afionis et al, Consumption-based carbon accounting: Does it have a future? WIREs Climate Change, vol. 8, 2017
González-Márquez & Toledo, Sustainability Science: A Paradigm in Crisis? Sustainability 12, 2802, 2020
Fang et al, What kind of a science is sustainability science? An evidence-based reexamination, Sustainability, 2018, 10, 1478.
Nijdam et al, Environmental load from Dutch private consumption, Journal of Industrial Ecology, Vol. 9, Issues 1-2 - Winter-Spring 2005.
Swinn, A comparative LCA of the carbon footprint of cut-flowers: British, Dutch and Kenyan, Lancaster University, Thesis, Lancaster UK, 2017
Wieland & Giljum, Carbon footprint decomposition in MRIO models: identifying EU-supply chain hot-spots and their structural changes over time, Institute for Ecological Economics, Vienna, Working Paper Series Nr. 13, Year 2, 2016
Jac Nijssen, 2021
This article has been written Mai 2021.