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Obstacle 5 - The conceptual distortion created by climate change

Updated January 2022

The concentration of greenhouse gases in atmosphere continues to increase in spite of the efforts to reduce it (Friedlingstein et al. 2019; Pihl et al. 2019; WMO 2021;  Figure 1). The threat of climate change has got the headlines and the sustainability attention is concentrated on reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases. In many cases this is the single issue considered when addressing sustainability (e.g., IPCC 2019a, 2019b; Pihl et al. 2019; Ripple et al. 2020; Eskenazi et al. 2020). This single-issue approach is blurring other impacts which are not less destructive to biosphere: massive pollution, habitat destruction, exhaustion of natural resources (see Biosphere diagnosis for details).


Addressing climate-change as a stand-alone issue leads to recommended actions that are simplistic when not contra productive.


An example are the proposals to intensify food production by substituting cattle grasslands by the much more efficient industrial crops with less emissions of greenhouse gases (e.g., IPCC 2019a, Drew et al. 2020; Ripple et al. 2020, 2021; Smith et al. 2020). Many of these eat-less-meat proposals do not consider the trade-offs of the crops (Figure 2): total destruction of grasslands’ habitat and their substitution by almost sterile monoculture fields, strong pollution by biocides and fertilizers, losses of soil by tillage, etc. (Martin et al. 2018; Dainese et al. 2019).  Besides, grass-fed cattle breeding may even be carbon neutral if properly performed (Stanley 2018).


Another example is the selection of the “greenest” clothing alternative among leather, wool, cotton, synthetic fibers, etc. A proper ranking should include not only the emissions of greenhouse gases but also habitat destruction, soil erosion, pollution by fertilizers and biocides, pollution by plastic debris, etc. The actual environmental advantages and disadvantages of different clothing alternatives become less clear when all the parameters (environmental trade-offs) are included in the analysis (Figure 3).

A third example is the ongoing transition from internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs) to electric vehicles (EVs) "with zero emissions".  As calculated by USEPA (2019), EVs have much less CO2 emissions than ICEVs, but by far these emissions are not zero (Figure 4). Besides, EVs have higher environmental impacts than ICEVs in terms of metal and mineral consumption and human toxicity potential (Xia and Li 2022). When considering all the parameters in a wider context, EVs still have a lower environmental impact that ICEVs, but the trade-offs of manufacture and use make them just an improvement, not a magic solution.


Even the so called “European Green Deal” aiming to make Europe a climate-neutral continent has been criticized for ignoring the trade-offs that would have contra-productive effects (Fuchs et al. 2020).


Disciplinary specialization that addresses only narrow specific problems is behind these simplistic proposals (Brandshaw et al. 2021). Climate change is not the single threat to sustainability and therefore a more holistic multi-parameter approach is required.

CO2 emissions.jpg

Figure 1. Global Fossil CO2 Emissions and Surface Average Atmospheric CO2 concentration. Schematic redrawn from Friedlingstein et al. (2019).

Note: CO2 emissions decreased a bit in 2020 due to the COVID-19 crisis, but the atmospheric concentration continued to increase (WMO Press Release 23112020, 2020, )

Food production trade offs.JPG

Figure 2. Trade-offs in the selection of food production with minimal environmental impact (grass-fed cattle breeding is a common practice in main meat-exporting countries).

Clothing with minimal impact.jpg

Figure 3.  Selecting the “greenest” clothing with minimal environmental impact.

Advantages/disadvantages of the different alternatives are less clear when the comparison is based on several parameters instead of a single one. Many popular “green” recommendations on food, clothing, transport, recycling, etc. are based on only one or two parameters and use to be environmentally wrong.

Vehicle CO2 emissions.JPG

Figure 4. Emissions of GreenHouse Gases for electric and gasoline cars.

The blue bars include vehicle manufacturing (e.g., extracting materials, manufacturing and assembling parts, and vehicle assembly) and end-of-life (recycling or disposal). Orange bars include both tailpipe emissions and the upstream emissions associated with producing gasoline or electricity (U.S. mix)

Source: USEPA (2019).


Bradshaw C, P Ehrlich, A Beattie et al. (2021) Underestimating the challenges of avoiding a ghastly future. Frontiers Conserv. Sci. 1:615419.

Dainese M, E Martin, M Aizen, M Albrecht et al. (2019) A global synthesis reveals biodiversity-mediated benefits for crop production. Sci. Advances 5(10):eaax0121.

Drew J, C Cleghorn, A Macmillan and A Mizdrak (2020) Healthy and climate-friendly eating patterns in the New Zealand context. Environ. Health Persp. 128(1):017007.

Eskenazi B, R Etzel, K Sripada, M Cairns ... et al. (2020) The International Society for Children’s Health and the Environment commits to reduce its carbon footprint to safeguard children’s health.   Environ. Health Perspec. 121(1):014501.

Friedlingstein P, M Jones, M O’ al. (2019) Global Carbon Budget 2019. Earth Sys. Sci. Data 11:1783-1838.

Fuchs R, C Brown and M Rounsevell (2020) Europe’s Green Deal offshores environmental damage to other nations. Nature 586:671-673.

IPCC (2019a) Climate Change and Land. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - Special Report. Approved Draft August7th.


IPCC (2019b) The Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - Special Report. Final Draft. 1170 pp. 

Martin A, B Coolsaet, E Corbeta, N Dawson, J Fisher ... et al. (2018) Land use intensification – The promise of sustainability and the reality of trade -offs. In: Poudyal M, G Mace and K Schreckenberg (Eds.) Ecosystem Services and Poverty Alleviation – Trade-offs and Governance. Routledge Studies in Ecosystem Services,  Routledge, UK, pp 94-110.

Pihl E, M Martin, T Blome et al. (2019) 10 New insights in climate science 2019. Future Earth & The Earth League, Stockholm, 40 pp.

Ripple W, C Wolf, T Newsome, P Barnard and W Moomaw (2020) World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency. BioScience 70(1):8–12.

Ripple W, C Wolf, T Newsome et al. (2021) World Scientists' Warning of a Climate Emergency. Bioscience 71(9):894-898. 

Smith P, K Calvin, J Nkem et al. (2020) Which practices co-deliver food security, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and combat land degradation and desertification? Global Change Biol. 26(3):gcb.14878.

Stanley P, J Rowntree, D Beede et al. (2018) Impacts of soil carbon sequestration on life cycle greenhouse gas emissions in Midwestern USA beef finishing systems. Agricultural Systems 162:249-258. 

USEPA (2019) Electric vehicles myths. Myth #5. (accessed 11/2021).

WMO-World Meteorological Organization (2021) WMO Statement on the State of Global Climate in 2020. WMO report 1264, 56 pp.

Xia X and P Li (2022) A review of the life cycle assessment of electric vehicles: Considering the influence of batteries. 

Sci Total Environ. 814:152870.

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