Why our current footprint measuring system is broken, how See Through Carbon can replace it, and how we got this far
‘Carbon auditing standard’ sounds boring, but it couldn’t be more important. Here’s why.
See Through Carbon – an ambitious, innovative project to count carbon properly
See Through News is delighted to announce the launch of a pilot for project that’s been in development for more than a year.
See Through Carbon (STC) addresses the fundamental problem undermining current attempts to systematically combat climate change – measuring carbon footprints.
If you can’t measure something, how can you possibly know if you’re making any difference? The tools we’ve been using to measure the carbon footprints of all our activities, from the scale of an individual to an entire country, are fundamentally flawed.
For more than three decades we’ve been constructing an elaborate system of carbon standards, credits, pricing, trading and offsets, which has amply demonstrated it doesn’t work. It’s taking a complicated subject – how our complex species expends energy in a complex ecosystem – and making it even more complicated.
By coming up with a plethora of competing standards, a pricing system that values the same unit of greenhouse gas emissions at anything between US$137 and US$1, and an offsetting scheme that’s been repeatedly exposed as ‘unscalable, unjust and unfixable’, it’s time to admit defeat and move on.
Nearly everyone connected to Carbon Auditing 1.0 who doesn’t have a vested financial interest in perpetuating it knows it’s so riddled with loopholes, it’s irredeemably broken.
Apart from all these many flaws, the current system doesn’t even target the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that produce 70% of our emissions. The reason is simple – SMEs can’t afford it, and carbon auditing is a profit-making business that needs to stay in business.
All of which suggests not only that the current system is fundamentally flawed, but that any effective replacement would have to be:
- accurate, counting real-world carbon impact
- free to use, making it accessible to SMEs
- transparent, preventing users from influencing it
- open-source, facilitating constant improvement
In short: See Through Carbon.
A more detailed overview, including explanatory videos and plenty of links to authoritative sources, is available at the recently-launched See Through Carbon website.
See Through Carbon and See Through News
STC is unlike other projects you’ve been reading about in these newsletters for the past couple of years.
While it shares two words of its name, STC is an independent entity, designed to operate separately from See Through News. Indeed, as the website explains, the fact that it’s free to use, and the way it will be funded when money is required, is what makes it unique and innovative.
As the strapline says:
If you can’t buy integrity, why should you be able to sell it?
Being free means being free from being influenced by paying customers. There have long been dozens of green auditing standards competing for big businesses custom, which ironically has created a multi-billion dollar industry with similar vested interests to the fossil fuel-driven system it’s trying to topple.
STC emulates See Through News’ zero-budget, volunteer-driven approach, but if it is to succeed, will at some point need more than volunteer commitment to sustain it.
So how can it square this circle?
How to follow the money, when there’s no money?
Being free to use is fundamental to STC’s credibility. It’s what distinguishes STC from the dozens of venture-capital-funded commercial standards currently vying for market share.
Each claims to have its own Unique Selling Point (USP). Only See Through Carbon has a UP, as it’s not Selling anything. This, ironically, is a true USP.
STC has been developed on the same zero budget model as See Through News. It too is 100% the result of the combined efforts of an international team of like-minded volunteers with different fields of expertise.
Some of the key volunteers are veterans of See Through News projects, others are only involved in STC.
According to its business plan, STC can manage without any funding for the entire pilot phase.
The website goes into some detail on possible future funding models, and how they will enable this new standard to maintain its independence and integrity.
See Through Carbon’s role
Not only is STC designed to operate independently of See Through News (STN), its integrity depends on the independence of its Trustees.
See Through News is taking a leading role in developing STC and launching the pilot, but will only be involved for as long as required. STN plays a key role is in:
- conceiving STC
- establishing its infrastructure
- recruiting volunteer experts to make it work
- forming the Board of Trustees who oversee the standard
- marketing the concept
- project-managing the pilot
STN intends to withdraw from a leading role in STC as soon as practically possible, but anticipates it will have to be involved for at least for the pilot stage.
See Through Carbon Limited is a legal entity, currently registered in England & Wales as a limited-by-guarantee company. This affords it the legal status required to negotiate any free licences, to comply with data protection regulation etc., but at any future point can be turned into a trust, charity, community interest company (CIC) or any other legal entity, as deemed appropriate by its Trustees.
How did STC come about?
STC was conceived by STN founder Robert Stern. The year he was born, there were 320 parts of CO2 per million in Earth’s atmosphere. He’s now trying to find ways to reduce it from its current level of 416 and rising.
The slow burn: 1980s-1990s
As an international TV news journalist, business news reporter, documentary filmmaker and long-term environmentalist, Robert has observed the growth of the carbon auditing business from its late 1980s origins to its current multi-billion dollar manifestation.
Like many in the 1990s, Robert was initially beguiled by the economic elegance of green credits, CO2 pricing and trading. The notion that the huge problem created by the Industrial Revolution could be solved by using the very same market forces that drove it, was alluring and compelling.
But as reality played out, he saw how far short this theory fell in practice. As CNN Beijing Bureau Producer in the late 1990s, he saw how easy it was for Chinese coal-fired power plants to game the system. By producing the right piece of paper, a provincial power plant could effectively get paid to do what its own government’s regulations required it to do in any case.
Since then, as the system has grown and become more complex, so have the number of such loopholes.
The Mendacity of Hope: the 2000s
In 2003, like many, Robert was intrigued by the launch of the world’s first carbon calculator. Everyone on the planet could now visualise their own individual impact on the planet. Like many, his hope that this might result in a reduction in greenhouse gases were dashed. Individual footprint calculators became a weapon for flight-shaming and other forms of eco-guilt-tripping that generated a lot of division, and took the heat off those with the power to regulate rapid reduction top-down.
Then, over the 2010s, he read the trickle of leaks and investigations that revealed this inaction was not an unfortunate accident, but a sophisticated, deliberate diversionary tactic. We should have been more cynical, it turned out, about the fact the first calculator was created by BP’s advertising agency, all part of a strategy to ‘blame us for their greed’.
As various whistleblowers and investigative journalists documented what was behind this first ‘attempt’ at measuring CO2 emissions, Robert and others paying attention to such things learned the 2003 calculator and all its copycat successors were a smoke-and-mirrors trick. It was Phase 2 of Big Oil’s business-as-usual strategy of Deny, Distract and Despair, all designed to foster climate inactivity.
They were confident the playbook would work, as it was literally borrowed from Big Tobacco. As Amy Westervelt and the Drilled team documented and related with brilliant clarity, Big Oil used the same sophisticated, cynical tricks, created by the same PR companies, lawyers and advertising agencies the tobacco industry has used to stay in its harmful-but-lucrative business for as long as possible.
Robert saw how fossil fuel companies had discreetly, but ruthlessly, grabbed the wheel and re-framed atmospheric physics as a matter of individual choice, distracting from the fact that 100 companies are responsible for 70% of all greenhouse gas emissions.
Project Distract Tactic 1: re-frame the story
As a communications professional, Robert admired the storytelling craft and conjuror-level misdirection required to pull this off.
- Don’t blame tobacco companies for making lethal products – make it an issue of personal liberty.
- Don’t blame oil companies for releasing CO2 – make it your lifestyle choice.
This is clever stuff, as to be expected when the richest companies pay the smartest storytellers, but Big Oil wasn’t relying on the Mad Men to bail them out.
Robert saw that while climate scientists were becoming increasingly panicked at our climate inaction, fossil fuel industry’s capture of government processes appeared to tighten, rather than loosen. As the price of renewable energy dropped, and the threat to their core business increased, oil & gas companies didn’t wither away, as market forces would predict, but grew.
It turned out that in case the PR game didn’t do the trick, the fossil fuel giants had another less subtle tool at their disposal.
Project Distract Tactic 2: splash the cash
It wasn’t all subtle behavioural psychology, old-fashioned money still also worked just fine. As the climate emergency became more real, this strategy paid off, as politicians and thought leaders were paid off.
Being in the business of truffling for stories in boring-looking reports by dull-sounding institutions, Robert, and others, slowly clocked that the billions of lobbying dollars were actually an investment, not a cost of business-as-usual. Even now, the International Monetary Fund reckons global fossil fuel subsidies are seven trillion dollars.
In case that number drifted by, Robert, not a natural mathematician, finds it useful to write out such numbers in full to visualise the degree of corruption. The IMF uses the US definition of a trillion, which is a million million, or 12 zeros. So that would be
Of subsidies. Paid by governments to the hundred-odd fossil fuel companies that are cooking us towards extinction for short-term profit. The academic researchers Amy Westervelt interviewed on Drilled reckon Big Oil’t total spend on re-framing public opinion towards individual responsibility, AKA Phase 2 of Deny, Distract, Despair, was around a billion bucks.
So not just a defensive expense, also an astonishing ROI.
Big Oil’s sliding doors moment revealed
In recent years, we’ve discovered in excruciating detail that it didn’t have to be like this. Back in the 1970s, when Robert was still at school, Exxon made a choice. Their own team of remarkably prescient scientists had done the sums, based on the available scientific evidence, and warned that if we kept digging up fossil fuels, we’d end up smothering and heating the planet, with disastrous consequences.
Exxon could have chosen to reinvent itself as a renewable energy company. Instead, it suppressed the report, dissolved the team that wrote it, and kept on pumping oil.
As evidence trickled out, Robert saw this betrayal turn from tree-hugger conspiracy theory to fully-documented outrage, published by sober authorities like Scientific American.
Money trumps trees – the 2008 financial crisis
With others, Robert’s hopes were raised by governments talking the right talk in the early Noughties, only for climate action to be pushed to the back burner following the 2008 financial crisis.
‘The green crap’, as the UK’s Prime Minister referred to renewable energy subsidies at the time, turned out to be expendable luxuries.
At this time, Robert was making documentaries for Japanese public television about how the Netherlands had, on the advice of its scientists, abandoned centuries of building bigger, stronger dikes, to adapt to climate change by making ‘Room for the River’.
He saw oil companies ads begin to feature wind turbines and solar farms, until it seems renewable energy and green colour schemes dominate 100% of all oil company ads. Meanwhile, in the financial press, Robert observed how renewable energy remained low single-digits of their actual turnover and investment. Since Putin’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, Big Oil has abandoned even this greenwashing, with many oil giants reducing their investments in renewable energy to focus on their core business of creating more greenhouse gases.
The importance of rulers
In 2021, Robert abandoned journalism and filmmaking to set up See Through News as a zero-budget network to exploit free social media infrastructure and use storytelling and communications tactics, to Speed Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active.
Many others, with a wide range of skills, volunteered their services, and See Through News has thrived to the point of receiving and distributing US$500,000 non-cash donations to aid Global South sustainability, and developing a social media reach, on zero budget, that’s already larger than many national newspapers and most digital TV news audiences.
But while building this network to nudge ordinary people (what STN calls ‘Unwilling Inactivists’) into effective climate action, Robert saw the entire climate business was based on shaky foundations. One of STN’s key messages was to focus on the Rulers, not the Ruled (i.e. target government regulation over individual behaviour change), but he hadn’t considered the importance of the other kind of ruler.
If you can’t measure something properly, how can you claim to be changing it?
Like the Dutch flood control engineers protecting their cities, Robert saw tinkering with the old system of carbon auditing was doomed to fail. The path he saw starting with those provincial Chinese power companies from his CNN Beijing perch in the 1990s had reached a dead end.
The solution lay in a radical change that reflected the new reality.
So he started thinking about what could replace it, discussed the issue with experts in various fields, and came up with See Through Carbon.
How did See Through Carbon get this far with only volunteers and no money?
The team of volunteers who created See Through Carbon to the point of launching the pilot is many, diverse, global, and covering a wide range of expertise, including:
- carbon auditing
- environmental consulting
- computer science and AI
- knowledge management
- business development
- IT project management
- software engineering
- web design
- marketing and branding
Key partners include:
- the Global Sustainable Futures Network, who also collaborated on the eponymous See Through Carbon Competition, which used its rapidly-expanding network to give away a US$500,000 donation of supercomputer-grade cloud computing to benefit carbon reduction in the Global South.
- GSFN Founder Dr. Renuka Thakore is also a Founding Trustee for STC’s Board of Trustees experts who set, monitor, verify and tweak STC’s Absolute Standard and the algorithm generating the Relative Standard.
- Invosystems Solutions PTE Limited, a Singapore-based IT consultancy that has granted a free licence to use its award-winning PlanetSustain data-collecting app, recently verified and approved by the Singaporean and Indian governments, for the pilot.
- YellowDog, a UK-based hi-tech cloud computing management platform
- Plusmedia Solutions, a US-based impact-based digital marketing specialist
- Watershed Creative, a UK-based web design company building STC’s website
- plus many more individuals with specialist expertise and skills
Details of our volunteers, partners and collaborators will shortly be available on the STC website as it expands.
After more than a year of planning and development, STC is about to find out what happens when it’s released into the wild.
The pilot, as described in detail on STC’s website, launches in two locations in Wiltshire, South West England, in September 2023.
Updates and details can be found either via STC’s website, or via its newsletter, which will launch as soon as the first milestone is reached.
The next few weeks and months will reveal how compelling the See Through Carbon offer is to real-world SMEs struggling for survival in a cost-of-living crisis. Watch this space – or rather the STC’s website and newsletter – to find out what happens next…
See Through News would like to thank all the volunteers, named and unnamed, who have made this remarkable, unique experiment possible. We welcome your support for STC and all STN’s own projects.