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Terms and Restrictions Apply

tl;dr: don't let decarbonization become a trendy buzzword

Sometimes during a trend, a word or phrase describing that trend takes on a life of its own. At its worst, the term becomes a buzzword that gets distorted from its original intent. At its best, it highlights the reasons why it became popular in the first place. The buzzword that I want to talk about today is decarbonization.

But, before we get to that, let’s trace the path of another term that started with good intentions but has potentially created more harm than good. That buzzword is antibacterial. Sounds great, right? You probably feel all warm and fuzzy just thinking about how beneficial something being antibacterial must be. Except that, in some ways, it really isn’t.

Antibacterial products exist everywhere. You can buy antibacterial soaps, wipes, sprays, bandaids, creams, and on and on and on. It wouldn’t surprise me if Kellog’s next new cereal is Antibacterial Frosted Flakes. A common ingredient in many of these products is triclosan (TCS). TCS was developed in 1966 and was designed to be used in hospitals as a scrub for surgery. Today, it can be found in shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, mouthwash, cleaning supplies, pesticides, toys, bedding, socks, trash bags, etc. Hospitals need to be pristine sanitary places because people are frequently getting cut open, and foreign germs inside the body in a surgical situation is a very bad thing. As in, you can get an infection and die. Triclosan was developed to prevent that, not to ensure that germs don’t appear in your trash bin. Having TCS in common household products is like driving a tank as your commuting vehicle. Completely unnecessary.

Now we are facing two problems with the overuse of TCS. One is that it often kills good bacteria. If your question is “Wait, is there such a thing as good bacteria?” that is the problem. We have adjusted the narrative to the point that many people do not understand that without bacteria, we don’t live. Our bodies are hosts to about 100 trillion “good” bacteria, most of which aid in our digestion. Far too often, antibacterial products do not discern the good from the bad and wipe out all of them equally. This is a problem.

The second issue is that TCS is now categorized as a CEC, or “contaminant of emerging concern.” Several companies are phasing out TCS in their products because it is a suspected endocrine disruptor. Apparently, a potential result of endocrine disruption is an incomplete descent of the testes and a smaller scrotum and penis. If the general public knew about this, chances are pretty good that TCS would be completely banned immediately.

The bottom line is that overuse of antibacterial products has resulted in a much more challenging situation today. Harmful germs have evolved to become more resistant; we have health side effects from repeated and prolonged exposure, and good bacteria is getting slaughtered in the process. All in all, are we better off for having kitchens and bathrooms using the same level of products as operating rooms in hospitals? I believe there might be compelling arguments to state that we are, in fact, worse off because of this.

Decarbonization could have similar outcomes. There is no denying that human beings are spewing way too much CO2 into the atmosphere. But a term like decarbonization will put carbon in the same threat category as bacteria. Just like all bacteria is now viewed as bad, people may conclude that all carbon is bad, and that is just plain ludicrous. Folks, life doesn’t exist without the carbon cycle. That’s not opinion, that’s straight up fact. Do you know what would happen if we removed all CO2 from the atmosphere? The planet would very quickly become an ice cube incapable of hosting most life that currently exists today, including human beings. Carbon is the foundation for all life on Earth.

The definition of decarbonization is the reduction or elimination of carbon dioxide emissions from a process such as manufacturing or the production of energy. We absolutely need to transition from fossil fuels to sources that don’t involve CO2 emissions. However, we tend to go from one extreme to another, and the reality is that going too far in the other direction can present serious issues as well. The problem is that decarbonization sounds sexy. It implies positive action. Because it sounds cool, lots of businesses will be eager to jump on the decarbonization bandwagon. Before you know it, Taylor Swift’s next album will be proudly decarbonized. Which will mean that if you aren’t buying decarbonized products, you’re essentially a piece of shit. But is there truly a benefit and will we be charged more for these “better” products?

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you will remember we discussed the perils of greenwashing. Many product claims of environmental benefit are dubious, so why wouldn’t decarbonization go down the same path? Especially if corporations sniff a profit motive to do so. We cannot villainize carbon. I urge businesses to resist the temptation of claiming decarbonization as an effective marketing tool and leave this buzzword to us in the sustainability and climate fields. Not everything should be transferrable, and this term needs to be squashed so that we don’t end up in the same situation that we face regarding microbes and antimicrobial products. We should remove the term decarbonization with surgical precision so that it doesn’t become a meaningless corporate buzzword, and the good news is that in this surgery, we don’t need any antibacterial items to do so.

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