Carbon Tunnel Vision

It’s likely that everyone has heard the phrase “Carbon tunnel vision” in the last year or two and some of us, myself included, have used it when talking about sustainability. I was being a bit flippant when I used it a couple of times earlier this year during presentations, but I have been reflecting on its meaning recently and think it requires a bit more exploration, because it underlines different people’s attitudes as well as telling us a bit about the sort of work they might do.

So what do people mean when they talk about Carbon tunnel vision? Here’s an example from the Stockholm Environment Institute: “Some oil and gas companies have begun to market their products as “clean” or “carbon neutral”. Such tactics are greenwashing at best and dangerous at worst. Not only has investigation after investigation exposed the carbon offset industry as highly unreliable, these company narratives create a distraction from the fact that we need to transition away from fossil fuels now to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.” So their concern is that by focusing on the idea of it being possible to net out emissions, we are missing the point that fossil fuel emissions are not actually cancelled by such an approach. Anything we can be doing to sequester carbon should not be netting out new emissions, it should be locking up legacy emissions. I feel that this is a good use of the term, because it is saying that supposedly “balancing the Carbon books” is more a road to perdition than a good intention. They reproduced this image by Jan Konietzko of Cognizant to emphasise all of the negative impacts of burning fossil fuels that are not primarily related to Carbon. It’s important that companies look more broadly than just balancing carbon when designing their sustainability strategies.

Many others have written on the subject since SEI, mostly with similar points to make; but more recently I have heard people in more practical roles, particularly in agriculture, using the “C tunnel vision” phrase and I sense that they are using it slightly differently. When I hear some people use the phrase, I sense that they are saying that not only are there other things to worry about, but also that Carbon is really not their concern. There are a few reasons for adopting that attitude, some I think better than others.

One reason, is that there are still many in farming and ranching who really do not think that their activities have contributed in any significant way to climate change. This view tends to be supported by those who emphasise the limited contribution of for example, direct enteric emissions, to climate change. There is some logic to this, because the percentage of overall emissions that comes from enteric emissions is small in relation to the total, and the question of their contribution to warming depends on which metric you use. However, I think everyone now agrees that climate change is caused by human activity and therefore, even if you don’t think your activity contributes hugely, it would make sense to do at least your “bit”.  Then there are those who recognise the importance of climate change, but do not think that there is very much that they can do about it, and that most of their sustainability work is much more important to their operation than an individual focus on emissions for example. Again, I can see the logic on this, because for most producers adaptation is going to be a primary concern, while everyone needs to eat and will continue to do so, so productivity and efficiency are also priorities. In this case, I would add that many of the things that contribute to adaptation, productivity and efficiency, are also capable of contributing to mitigating climate change.

Maybe more importantly though, is the fact that people doing practical work find abstract talk about carbon frustrating. This is particularly true if the carbon they are supposed to be controlling is in the form of methane which they cannot even see or measure. On the other hand, people involved in desk based jobs tend to like to simplify things to abstracts, and of course accounting is bread and butter to many such roles. And so it is that while practical people see Carbon as overly simplistic and possibly just a distraction, the more theoretical people, including policy makers etc, think it is a useful way to bring order to the chaos of an overly complex world. So rather than seeing carbon as a tunnel through which they view the world, they believe they are seeing the world through a “prism” that helps them account for many issues using one element.

While that is a pretty facile distinction between two caricatures, I think it might help us when we are talking to different audiences. We have previously talked in our communications summit about tailoring the message to the audience, and that does not just mean the story we are telling, but the way in which we do so. Talking about carbon might be great for a room of policy makers or bankers, but a group of cattle producers are probably going to be more interested in talking about cattle, calving intervals, weaning weights, or grass, or water. Unless you’re paying for carbon of course; but then we get back to the whole balancing the books discussion we started this with, and the difference between insetting and offsetting.

To finish up – we have a Climate Goal, not a Carbon goal, and for some of our members that feels too abstract. I’d encourage all of us to think about how to make some of the abstracts we talk about more concrete, more real for all of our members, because when we all understand how those abstract things relate to our practical work, we are much more motivated to deliver on them.


Ruaraidh Petre, GRSB Executive Director