"A carbon-neutral journey", "a zero-carbon event", "a climate-neutral territory": such statements are irresponsibly displayed by businesses and organisations that claim to be developing carbon-neutral products and services, across all sectors. This ultimately amounts to deviating from the concept of carbon neutrality, through the guise of carbon emission offsetting. It bears three sources of negligence:
- A societal one, because displaying the “carbon neutrality” of a product or a service is misleading for consumers and citizens that may be unfamiliar with the rules of carbon accounting, which are often only valid at a global scale;
- An environmental one, because achieving neutrality first implies reducing direct and indirect GHG emissions in absolute terms ;
- An economic one, because by continuing to sell products or services without really transforming the value chain and manufacturing processes, a company will not be viable in a low-carbon economy.
This situation and behaviour from companies and organisations is worrying because a failure to reach carbon neutrality means tampering with the climate conditions that make Earth liveable and risks increasing social inequalities within and between countries. All actors - states, companies, citizens - must contribute to this collective challenge, for which three steps are necessary: education, commitment and regulation.
The IPCC defines carbon neutrality as "a situation in which net anthropogenic CO2 emissions are offset on a global scale by anthropogenic CO2 removals over a given period of time" . This is the objective that all states have set themselves to achieve by 2050 via the Paris Agreement . This equilibrium therefore only makes sense on a global scale. However, as many advertisements show, carbon neutrality and the ways it is implemented are still poorly understood. Compensation remains at the heart of communication campaigns. Education is a key lever to avoid this counterproductive pitfall.
It is then essential to commit responsibly to the transition. For companies, this means defining a realistic strategy that is compatible with the Paris Agreement, starting with an introspection into the usefulness and social purpose of their products and services. Mindsets the likes of infinite sales and production metrics, that operate with the sole purpose of maximising market shares and increasing shareholder value are no longer acceptable. The current consumerism model upheld by companies, must disappear. This will require an overhaul of the economic model of most companies. A sustainable future is where the production meets essential needs, by creating robust, repairable objects designed to be integrated into a circular economy, with a limited biodiversity impact and within planetary boundaries .
Public authorities also have a central role. Based on environmental science and biodiversity health monitoring, they must drive public policies that define new economic models and consumption patterns. In order to be accepted, these measures must be adapted to the territorial level, with an embedded redistributive logic to prevent the marginalisation of the most vulnerable and avoid contributing to an already existing social divide.
Finally, it is necessary to regulate the usage of the “carbon neutrality” notion by businesses and organisations. States and regulatory bodies have an essential role they are currently failing to fulfil. French President Emmanuel Macron initiated in 2019 the Citizens Convention for Climate (CCC). The 150 citizens, selected as a representative sample of the French population, submitted 149 proposals to address the environmental and social crises. While the government had promised to implement 146 of them, barely thirty were ultimately adopted to the same standards. The proposition which intended to limit greenwashing through regulating corporate communication on carbon neutrality was poorly transposed into a legal framework: companies can still legally claim to be carbon neutral without any conditions that guarantee a reduction of their carbon footprint .
To ensure global coherence, we must also democratically arbitrate on products and services that are not compatible with a climate-neutral society and on the residual emissions of organisations. In this respect, the Citizens Convention for Climate is a promising democratic, participatory and inclusive approach to developing relevant and fair measures, provided they are fully considered in the arenas of representative democracy.
Finally, while it is essential to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 at the latest, this goal must not obscure major issues, such as the collapse of biodiversity, which are largely absent from public debates. Taking a systemic view of all unsustainable human activities that threaten living organisms, in order to act to replace or put an end to them, is an immense challenge that we must take up before it is too late.
This article is also published on Convergences in French. Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
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Cyril Cassagnaud is a member of the public service pole at the Ecological Awakening collective, he is also an engineer in sustainable development and studied public policy at SciencesPo Paris. He is currently a chief engineer student at the National Institute of Territorial Studies in order to become a senior official.