Life’s too short to be ‘carbon neutral’

Measuring everything we do by how much carbon it produces is a contemporary form of penance.

Josie Appleton

Topics Science & Tech

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Carbon calculators have become the moral barometers for our age. Plug in what you have done – run a car, heated the house, taken a flight – and the result will tell you the amount by which you need to atone. No Hail Marys are required, just a tenner for the plane, or twenty quid for running the car. Nonconformism is not an option. Tony Blair first refused to apologise for his long-haul flights, but he soon repented and offset the carbon from his family’s holidays.

As a measure of virtue, the pluses and minuses of the carbon calculator indicate a peculiar moral blindness. It apparently doesn’t matter what the flight was for: whether a drug trafficker or a conman travelling to do a deal, or a violinist flying to give a concert or a man to see his sick mother, each and every plane journey is judged in the same way. The worthiness or otherwise of people’s activities gets pushed into the background, and the focus shifts to the numbers of carbon dioxide molecules admitted into the atmosphere.

Nothing is beyond the purview of this method of appraisal. One company, Climate Care, suggests giving carbon offsets as a gift to loved ones. ‘The perfect gift for the person who has everything – offset some CO2 on their behalf. We will send you a certificate with a personalised message that you can send to your nearest and dearest.’

This includes weddings – presumably so that the couple don’t start out by living in sin. With an online payment, you can gift the newlyweds peace of mind by offsetting their nuptials, including the guests driving or flying to the church, then heating the reception hall and running the disco late into the night. At the other end of the life-cycle, you are advised instead to go for a woodland burial with biodegradable coffin instead of carbon-dioxide producing cremation.

Everything that emits carbon is something to apologise for. The human good that has been added to the world – from a new relationship, to a new land-speed record – is apparently of little account. We are cast not as people trying to do things, aiming towards goals and objectives, but as organisms producing a certain amount of global warming substance. As a motto for life, this is ‘first, do no harm to the atmosphere’.

‘Carbon neutral’ is the desired state of Nirvana, and many are starting to take on carbon neutrality as a kind of ethos. Today, Britain’s high street giant Marks and Spencer has announced a £200m, five-year plan to become carbon neutral; the G8 held a carbon neutral summit; bands produce carbon neutral albums; the City of Newcastle aims to be carbon neutral soon; and schools and colleges in both the UK and USA are working on offsetting their carbon. Tellingly, the New Oxford American Dictionary chose ‘carbon neutral’ as its word of the year in 2006, commenting ‘It’s more than a trend, it’s a movement.’

This way of looking at the world pollutes the social environ – the space in which we should be thinking about what we want to do and why, and judging the things we have done. The aim becomes not ‘I want to do something worthwhile’ but ‘I want to emit no noxious substances into the atmosphere’, which is a dull and flat way of viewing human existence.

We should chuck out the carbon calculators, and try to focus on more meaningful ways of judging our activities. Is a school a good school? Is Newcastle a vibrant and fun city to live in? Was a flight a good use of our time? Did a summit yield important agreements? The question of whether something is a ‘waste’ should hang on whether or not it yielded important results, rather than on some indifferent totalling of the amount of energy consumed.

If society requires solutions to a problem such as global warming these should be as large-scale and administrative as possible, dealing with methods of energy production, housing insulation, appliance and vehicle manufacture. These approaches are likely to be more effective than everybody giving a donation to Climate Care each time they sneeze. More importantly, it would leave us free to think of more interesting and meaningful ways of holding ourselves and others to account.

We’ll be carbon neutral when we’re dead, but till then we have places to go and people to meet.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club. Email her here.

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Topics Science & Tech


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