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How not to compare things

May 21, 2012

I just finished eating a braggart piece of chocolate. Well, to be fair, the chocolate wasn’t bragging. The chocolate cover, on the other hand… Ecological, Forest Stewardship Council, myclimate, and Fairtrade. The last one was my reason to buy it. Whoever designed the cover seems mostly concerned over climate instead. There’s a report on exactly how much CO2 was emitted to create this particular piece of chocolate, and also a rather manipulative account on a project by myclimate. The project itself seems a good thing. myclimate is giving proper stoves to people in Peru, so they don’t have to use as much firewood for cooking and heating. The account tells me I “contributed” by buying this chocolate, but not by how much, so it’s probably nothing I can really be proud of. It also tells me that this project will reduce emissions by 175,000 tonnes CO2-equivalents over 7 years, and invites me to compare that to the 150-200 g CO2 emitted by driving a car 1 km. Right. The only good thing about that comparison is that they are actually giving me all the relevant units, so that I can easily see how irrelevant the comparison itself is.

A whole project with who knows how many stoves, versus one car.

CO2-equivalents versus CO2.

Seven years versus one minute.


A fair comparison would be the 175,000 tonnes of CO2-equivalents, versus however many CO2-equivalents all car traffic in Germany emits over 7 years. Or the reduction in CO2-emission for preparing one meal on a stove as opposed to over open fire, compared with the 200 g for a 1 km carride.

Do the writers really suppose people are stupid enough to come away with the message: “through buying this chocolate, I reduced emissions with 175,000 tonnes, and my car only emits 150 g, so I don’t have to feel guilty any more for having a car”? Because that seems to be the message they are trying to sell. Hm. Actually, I do think people are… well, not that stupid, but certainly that careless. Who hasn’t skimmed over the units in a text, once in a while?

I don’t like it when I find out that somebody is trying to manipulate me. I don’t think I will buy this brand again. There are other brands of Fairtrade chocolate.

  1. is it just me or is there a hint of “not in our backyard”-thinking in that comparison.. as in “we sure hope our customers don’t start thinking too much about how much co2 we’re emitting by trafficking this chocolate halfway around the world, let’s keep them occupied with those lousy oldschool peruvian fireplaces that really needs to be replaced in stead”. i don’t know how they count the equivalents, but i thougt firewood was supposed to be co2-neutral, i mean, in an optimal world the trees the peruvians chop down to cook their food should grow back? anyways, i also wrote a text on silly anticlimatecampaigns today.

  2. Well, supposedly the firewood comes from “non-sustainable forestry” which I assume is fancy talk for “those stupid farmers are just cutting and cutting and never replanting”. I agree, it ought to grow back, but maybe the population density has gotten too high for that to happen on its own. Or maybe it’s a bureaucratic definition that wood counts as CO2-neutral only of you plant back what you cut down.

  3. well, it might very well be that the wood comes from the forests they’re cutting down all over south-america in order to grow soy beans for china (since china isn’t self-sufficient anymore in soy beans now that the chinese middle class decided they wanted to start eating meat just like the middle class in the rest of the world) and corn for “biofuel”-production. in that case, i understand the equivalents.

    and anyways, planted forests never reach the same co2-binding capacity as ancient forests, not until they’re cut down again, so i guess the whole co2-neutrality is just a pipedream.

  4. Probably. And it’s definitely just a dream to suppose that we could ever reduce the human impact on the planet to zero (unless humanity should go extinct, that is).

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