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The limits of localism

This isn’t the biggest deal in the world, but it’s an instructive example of the limits of focusing too narrowly on highly specific or prescriptive solutions to climate change.

The New Belgium Brewery, maker of the tasty Fat Tire beer, is run by a bunch of nice hippies who manage their company toward an impressive list of environmental and social goals. Recently the company endured some minor controversy arising from accusations that their claim to be “100% wind-powered” was overly broad and misleading. New Belgium took the criticism as an excuse to re-up their commitment to sustainability and transparency, culminating in their first-ever sustainability report (pdf).

The New York Times story on the incident includes the necessary splash of cold water from a snippy environmentalist:

> Still, some environmentalists remain unconvinced. New Belgium now distributes its beer in 18 states — a point not lost on Will Walters of the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Sierra Club, who would prefer to see companies working more locally.

> “I have seen Fat Tire in far flung places in other states where it shouldn’t be,” Mr. Walters said.

It so happens that New Belgium takes its carbon footprint very seriously, and in 2008 hired The Climate Conservancy to perform a full life cycle analysis of a six-pack of Fat Tire Amber Ale. The report, in 37 pages of gory detail (pdf) lays out the carbon impact of everything from barley seed production to the adhesive on the back of beer labels to employee commutes to refrigeration in retail stores to the landfilling of six-pack containers. In other words, they looked at everything.

The results in a nutshell:

* Distribution of beer (to those “states where it shouldn’t be”) accounts for just 8.7% of the product’s carbon footprint.
* Energy use in retail stores and raw material inputs account for about 76% of the beer’s carbon footprint.
* Fat Tire has a carbon footprint about 35% lower than industry average.
* Fat Tire has a goal of reducing the footprint of its products a further 25% by 2015.

Taken together, these stats suggest that environmentalists should be delighted to see Fat Tire showing up in far-flung places. Not only is it likely to have a lower carbon impact than whatever it’s replacing, but the product is going to get cleaner over time. Further, buying from New Belgium supports an activist company that is working to change practices for the entire industry.

Of course, there are things you can do to bring your own beer footprint down lower. You can fill reusable growlers at your local brewpub. Or buy unrefrigerated beer in cans. Or buy warm vodka in plastic jugs. Or stop drinking and play Scrabble.

But there’s nothing magical about localism. It’s a potentially effective strategy for reducing carbon emissions, but it’s one of many, and it needs to be evaluated on its merits, not treated as a special category worthy of unique consideration.

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