In November 2013, I participated in a conference entitled Corporate Sustainability and Eco-innovations at which academics, mainly from developing countries from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), presented their views and research on the subject.

All the presentations were very interesting and intellectually stimulating but one concept struck me in particular. Professor Gregor Radonjič from the University of Maribor evaluated the consequences of using carbon emissions as an indicator of overall sustainability and general environmental impact. As a society, we very often associate the level of emissions of this greenhouse gas with overall environmental impact of goods, services, institutions, actions or projects. I am not suggesting that this is a measure widely accepted by academics, but the media and the wider population seem to be far more willing to use this shortcut as a proxy for assessing sustainability.

However, as Professor Radonjič showed, focusing solely on reducing the carbon footprint can sometimes have adverse effects on the overall sustainability of our endeavors. A good example of such unfortunate action would be a reduction in overall emission of carbon dioxide but an increase of emission of other greenhouse gasses such as methane (which is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas). Methane is a byproduct of drilling for natural gas. This type of fuel is marketed as sustainable due to a lower CO2 emission during combustion. Although, using natural gas may be associated with a lower emission of carbon gases it may also give raise to an increase in the emission of methane. Although the net effect depends on the technologies used in the process switching to natural gas may in fact be no better for the natural environment despite a related reduction in emitted CO2. Similar cases that involve methane can be made for cattle ranching and cultivation of some crops. I also expect that a number of similar other spillover effects can occur in other areas which we are not yet aware of.

As the presentation unfolded, I became more and more concerned about the attention that carbon emissions receive, and the dangers that this creates. Although we do not yet have a universal method of measuring sustainability, we need to very careful about assessing environmental impacts solely by carbon emissions levels.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>