Thinking about carbon? Quit being so cautious

June 29, 2021
If you’re serious about climate, you’ll estimate your carbon footprint now and pay to compensate for it every year starting today.

We talk to a lot of brands with good intentions. Some have been working to reduce their carbon footprint for years; others are just beginning to conceptualize how they add to the problem of global climate change -- and how they should contribute to solutions.

Sometimes, we have conversations that end like this:

Thanks for your time, but [brand] has decided to focus on understanding its footprint this year. We’re going to work on producing life cycle assessments of our products, and then maybe next year we can circle back to a conversation about what to do about our carbon footprint. We just need to move slowly and carefully, and we’re especially concerned with following the science.

Again, this reflects good intentions. What it doesn’t reflect is science.

The science tells us to reduce global carbon emissions, this year and every year, by more than 8%. The science tells us that even amidst a global pandemic that ground our economy to a halt, we’re way off target. The science, together with economics, tells us that climate change could steeply reverse wealth increases in countries around the world - to the tune of tens of trillions of dollars by 2050.

All of this points to something obvious: we need to start removing carbon from the atmosphere -- like, yesterday.

So it’s high time to reconsider those good intentions. It may be good news that many people have them, but they’re not amounting to progress or results. Why not?

At best, they often get sidetracked by an innocent misunderstanding: measuring and compensating for your footprint can and should be a “yes, and” choice -- not an either/or decision.

At worst, they’re a diversion as old as failed climate action itself: the idea that we all mean well, but we want to be careful not to take action without understanding the situation fully and perfectly. In this case, that would mean measuring every last gram of carbon and finding the silver bullet solution for all of them, one that’s guaranteed to cost little, implement itself, and mitigate a whole lot of carbon.

This preference for complete certainty is, ironically, known as “the precautionary principle.” And in the case of climate, it’s where short term rationality meets long term insanity.

Reality demands a different kind of precaution. Precision and silver bullets don’t exist in a problem as complex as climate change, and we have to favor immediate action.

So here’s our proposal: create a good estimate of your footprint. Refine the estimate to the best of your ability with the tools available to you, and then deal. with. your. carbon. Deal with it now by funding projects that avoid and remove carbon. Deal with it over time by shifting your operations toward lower-carbon production. Just deal with it.

There will be a time in your future when you’ve got the budget to do a lifecycle analysis. When you get there, it will be a good day, because it will mean that others have also begun to give carbon management the budget it deserves. But chances are you’re not there yet, and what you need to focus on right now is getting yourself started.

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