Water Neutrality – Discussion paper (2008)

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David Ganzi

I. The Importance of Environmental Terms

In the efforts of environmentalism, having concrete definitions is of the utmost importance.
Clear and concise word choice allows the general population to understand environmental issues. The media can spread the message of sustainability easily and explain the efforts of leading specialists to Joe Public. With greater societal understanding comes and more environmentally conscious world.

Recent environmental efforts have oftentimes stemmed from the simple ideas of ‘organic’ or ‘carbon neutral.’ With carbon neutrality, for instance, carbon dioxide emissions are reduced, via curbing emissions or buying carbon offsets. Music concert tours, apparel, award shows, ice cream, taxi service, car insurance, airlines, hotels, drinks, office buildings, movies, the Vatican, housing, individuals, websites, rental cars, and many more have all become carbon neutral; ‘carbon neutral’ has become an inspiration for the environmental cause.

II. What is Carbon Neutrality?

In 2006, the phrase was adopted into the New Oxford American Dictionary as Word of the Year1. But, what is carbon neutrality?

Carbon neutrality involves calculating carbon dioxide emissions, reducing, and offsetting those emissions. The goal is to curb carbon dioxide emissions in the environment by achieving a net zero carbon footprint, ultimately reducing deleterious contributions to climate.

Yet, even with popular use and knowledge of carbon neutrality, its definition can be ambiguous. Energy sources under the carbon neutral umbrella include: solar, wind, tidal, wave, geothermal, nuclear, and hydrological power. But carbon neutrality does not necessarily imply emitting zero carbon dioxide to the environment (that is more specifically termed “carbon zero”). Carbon neutral practices include burning carbon sinks, like fuel wood or corn ethanol.

A carbon neutral act is really an issue of offsetting (if the action contributes carbon dioxide in the first place), in a sense. Burning fuel wood is a carbon neutral act because under the photosynthetic process, carbon dioxide is essentially held within the plant matter instead of the atmosphere. In this case, the offsetting was the growth of the tree before being burnt. Petrol can also be offset in a similar manner with additional carbon sinks to counteract the carbon dioxide released.

Even if the definition is a bit misleading (reasons include: differentiation with carbon zero, the fact that burning biological matter is carbon neutral, or its actual implication of carbon dioxide not carbon), the word ‘neutral’ sounds bold. Carbon neutral is still an effective mantra for environmental stewardship efforts. But is the definition perfect? There is clearly room for improvement.

Carbon neutrality decreases carbon dioxide emissions. But, the definition does not necessarily entail carbon dioxide equivalency (including other important greenhouse gases), long-term reductions in C02 (carbon offsetting plants often die shortly), stopping business as usual (offsets are much more convenient than direct emissions reductions), or even environmentally conscious offsetting. For example, invasive species can be planted, detrimental to the native soil, species, and long-term carbon fixation2. Carbon neutral practices are a step in the right direction, but are not the definitive answer for our environment or even climate change.

 Could the term ‘carbon neutral’ be more environmentally effective if there was an attempt to make the definition more comprehensive?

III. From Carbon Neutrality to Water Neutrality

Carbon dioxide emissions are not the only environmental issue to ponder; water has increasingly become an important environmental issue in terms of quality and quantity available. Therefore, a similar term for water problems has been created: “water neutrality.” The concept is considerably newer and less well-known, first used in a speech in 20023 (carbon neutral is 11 years older4). Most worldwide Press coverage on the subject revolves around the efforts of Coca-Cola and the World Wildlife Fund.