On the Meaning of “Carbon Neutral”

I noticed that a few products in my house have begun to proudly proclaim themselves as being “carbon neutral” over the last few months. Apparently this is among the new set of empty phrases marketing people feel are necessary to distinguish their otherwise ordinary commodity products from identical products of comparable quality. It used to be “Made in U.S.A.” or “日本製” (depending on the neighborhood), then it was “low sodium”, then “waterproof”, then “low fat” then “low transfat” then “cholesterol free” then “omega-3” then something else I probably forgot.

The problem isn’t that any of these things aren’t potentially good selling points, its that they usually don’t apply to the things I see the labels on. For example, I remember seeing an electric wok that said “Made in U.S.A.” on the bottom. I’m not so sure that’s the best thing to concern one’s self with when buying a cooking apparatus that originated in another hemisphere. That’s like buying a tuna steak because the sticker on the package marks it as being “a peanut-free product” or believing that a piece of software is high quality because its written in Java (or even more uselessly, “utilizes Java technology!”).

This reminds me of my sister’s enlightening tale of the truth behind the now heavily regulated terms “organic” and “all natural” as applied to food labels. She did her undergraduate study in genetics and graduate work in nutrition, worked in colon cancer research for a while, started a dietary medicine program at a hospital in Virginia a few years back, and now (after reaching some disillusionment with the state of government-funded research) raises “range fed Angus beef” as a side interest. She is therefore directly governed by some of the more hilarious regulations the FDA has come up with.

Needless to say, her opinion on the value of these buzzwords has much more influence to me than whatever a “medicinal cannabis expert” has to tell me about the benefits of toking up or the local yoga girl at the gym has to tell me about the benefits of yogurt shakes or almond oil or peanut-butter enemas or whatever it happens to be this week (of course, she’s just right about the benefits of sex in exciting places). In short, the regulations governing terms such as “organic” and “natural flavor” (or even the way the term “X% fat free” is permitted to be used) are both economically draining legally apply due to the administrative overhead of regulatory compliance and yet so full of loopholes that there is really no clear distinction between a head of lettuce that is “organic” and one that isn’t so labeled. Essentially the only difference is the price of the market package.

Of course, the real difference is that the lettuce sporting an “organic” sticker on it is almost undoubtedly produced by a large agribusiness firm that can afford the overhead of doing all the pencil-drills necessary to proclaim their lettuce to be “organic”. Either that, or it is quite pricey lettuce only rich folks who feel the need to spend more to sate their moral thirst can afford, grown at an “organic” farm run by one savvy businessman and a flock of altruist peons bent on saving humanity from itself one vegetable at a time. I’m certainly not saying that large agribusiness is bad — ultimately its the only way we’re going to survive over the long-term (and here I’m including post colonization of space) — but that the terms used on packaging are enormously deceptive in nature.

But that’s food. It is a specific example where it is relatively easy to trace both the regulatory documentation and the research literature. Of course, very few people actually track all that down — other than unusual people like my sister who happen to be trained in genetics, directly involved in agriculture, and so habituated to both scientific and regulatory research that they find nothing daunting about navigating the semantic labyrinth the FDA has let agricultural regulation become in the US (and the phrase “let…become” could easily be replaced with “deliberately made of…”). I suppose the problem isn’t that few people track all that down, really; its more a problem that even if my sister were to go to the trouble of explaining what she knows to the average consumer they wouldn’t have the faintest clue what she was getting at. The average consumer is instead faced with an essentially religious (or at least dogmatic) choice of whether to trust someone that has a stack of official paper backing up her credibility, or a government agency and a huge food industry which are both populated by thousands of people who each have every bit as much officious documentation backing up their reputations.

And that brings me back to “carbon neutral”. We still chase the purported value of demonstrably empty terms such as “cloud computing”, demonstrably failed vehicles such as “social networking”, and demonstrably flimsy labels such as “organic” and “all natural”. But we don’t stop there. We are jumping head-first onto the “carbon neutral” bandwagon as well. The point isn’t that we shouldn’t be concerned with the terrestrial environment, but rather that we must at all times guard against political forces that constantly seek to invent new social mores and foist them on us by conjuring meaning into empty phrases like “carbon neutral”. It tricks you not just into buying ordinary thing A over ordinary-but-cheaper-thing B, but also into feeling morally superior. In this it is indistinguishable from other dogmatic rhetoric that engenders an unfounded sense of moral certainty. If we thought convincing people that a man in the sky doesn’t want them to fly airplanes into office buildings was hard, consider how much more difficult it is to convince average people who genuinely want to “do good” that reasonablish sciency words are nothing more than unfounded political siren songs trying to open one more door for the tax man.

So back to the reasonablish sciency phrase “carbon neutral”… what does it mean? This is where I have some semantic issues, mainly because nobody really knows.

Let’s say, for example, that we start a paper mill. We’ll make paper, but only from recycled paper and only using wind energy. This could probably qualify as being entirely “carbon neutral”. But so could the same paper mill if it planted its own trees. But what about the wind generators? They have to come from somewhere. What about the diesel-powered trucks that carry the old paper stock to the recycling mill? What about the initial material itself? Are we being carbon neutral if we don’t go replace as many trees as our recycled stock represents? How about the electricity used by the paper-compactors run by other companies we have no control over? What about our employees’ cars they use to get to work? What about all the flatulence the invite by eating pure vegan meals?

The initial production itself would almost certainly not qualify as being “carbon neutral” — which demonstrates that we have to draw an arbitrary line somewhere from which we can derive a meaning for the term “carbon neutral”. It is almost certain that something, whether directly or indirectly, involved an increase in carbon emissions (and the meaning of “direct” and “indirect” really should be their own battlegrounds here, considering what people think the term “carbon neutral” means) somewhere at some point, otherwise there wouldn’t be people to buy our recycled earth-friendly paper to begin with.

But what are “carbon emissions”? This is, apparently, intended to only refer to releasing carbon into the air. Consider for a moment how monumentally arbitrary that is. There are currently some well-intended, but enormously misguided efforts to “sequester” carbon by burying it in the crust of the Earth. This, of course, represents an enormously heavy emission of carbon into the environment, but we are calling this a “good” emission (actually, we refrain from using the word “emission” because we intend that to be a “bad” word) because it is going into the ground and not the air. Incidentally, it is also not going into something useful like diamond-edge tools or nano insulators or any other beneficial process that is desperate for carbon (which our planet happens to be poor in by cosmological standards).

So where did all this “bad” carbon come from? If you believe the press, its coming from our SUV exhaust, coal-burning plants, Lady GaGa (well, she might be a Democrat, in which case she can’t be bad), and pretty much anything else that humans use to modify local order at the expense of a probable increase in universal entropy.

Where did the carbon come from for the coal, crude, natural gas and bovine flatulence? Probably from the atmosphere and the sea. At least that’s what a biologist will tell you.

And here is a problem for me. Nobody has explained (not just to my satisfaction, but explained at all) where all the billions of tons of carbon necessary to create the forests that created the coal (and possibly crude oil) came from in the first place.

Well, that’s not quite true. In the first place it came from a long-dead stellar formation, some crumbs of which clumped together to form our solar system. That’s the first place. So the second place. Where did the carbon for all this organic activity come from in the second place? Was it distributed evenly in the early Earth? Has it always been a fixed quantity in the atmosphere? Does it boil out of the molten terrestrial substrate and gradually accumulate in the atmosphere and ocean?

If the forests grew in the first place then the carbon was in the air, at least at one point. If it is a fixed amount of atmospheric carbon then the growth of the forests and their subsequent demise and burial beneath sediment represents an absolutely massive sequestration of atmospheric carbon. If it is indeed a fixed amount, then the absolutely huge amounts of flora and fauna represented by these forests were not prevented from thriving in an atmosphere which contained a huge amount more carbon than the atmosphere contains today. If that is true, then either climate change is not affected much by the carbon content of the atmosphere, or a changed climate does not pose much of a threat to organic life on Earth.

Some parts of the fixed atmospheric quantity scenario don’t really add up. Despite a bit of effort I’ve only managed to scratch the surface of the ice core research literature, but a static amount of available atmospheric carbon doesn’t seem to be the story research efforts so far tell. This area of research has been made amazingly difficult to get a straight tack on ever since environmental sciences got overheated with politically-driven grants looking for results that validate political rhetoric instead of grants seeking research into what is still largely an observational field, but it seems fairly clear that there have been fluctuations in atmospheric carbon content that do not directly coincide with either the timing of ice-ages or the timing of mass terrestrial forestation. (The record is much less clear with regard to life in the ocean — and this could obviously be a key element, but it doesn’t seem that many people are looking there, perhaps because the current rhetoric is full of fear of rising sea levels, not full of hope for a marine component to the puzzle of eternal human salvation). That said, there must be some pretty massive non-human sources of atmospheric carbon which have been in operation millions of years before we evolved (as for where trillions of tons of carbon may have gone, I think the huge coal formations may be an indication).

While the idea that a carbon-rich atmosphere providing adequate conditions for thriving terrestrial life might seem odd (at least when compared with the “Your SUV is killing the Earth!” dialog), the idea that the Earth itself has both mechanisms to gradually ratchet up the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere over the eons and to drastically change the climate in spans measured in mere years (not decades, not centuries or millenia) without human or even atmospheric input is pretty scary.

A lot more scary than the idea that driving my kids to school might be damaging in some small way.

But this isn’t the way we are thinking. We are letting marketers and politicians — two groups infamous for being as destructively self-serving as possible — sell us a new buzzword stew, and we, the consumers, are ready to confidently parrot phrases such as “carbon neutral” about as if they mean something. “Oh, Irene, that salad dressing is 100% organic and carbon neutral — you’re such a gourmet!”

We’re clearly having the wool pulled over our eyes, except this time it doesn’t just play to our ego-maniacal craving to live forever (“If you eat gluten-free yogurt and drink positive-ion water you’ll live forever — and have huge tits/a thicker penis/ungraying hair/a tiny waist!”), it engenders a dangerous sense of moral superiority (“I’m doing this for the planet/global socialism/God/The Great Leader!”) which tends to eliminate all possibility of rational thought on a subject which could indeed affect us all.

What if, for example, the Atlantic currents are just panting their last, barely keeping us away from a global mass cooling event? We won’t just be blind to the threat because we’ve blown our research money on politically driven quests to generate the academic support necessary to pursue whatever new pork-barrel projects we come up with over the next decade or two — we will deny the very idea that a threat other than carbon emissions could possibly exist on moral grounds because we’ve already identified the “real enemy” (wealthy people in SUVs who come with the added benefit of being fun to hate). That’s dangerous.

Words mean things. We should remember that.

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