The Triple Bottom Line – Carbon Edition

By David Webster


In all the years I have been involved in sustainability and climate change I have never used the term “triple bottom line.” That will change. Wikipedia describes it as: “The triple bottom line (or otherwise noted as TBL or 3BL) is an accounting framework with three parts: social, environmental (or ecological) and financial. Some organizations have adopted the TBL framework to evaluate their performance in a broader perspective to create business value. Even though I may not actually use the term, I try to look at each initiative through its impact on the triple bottom line.

Here’s how it should work. There is a strong connection between reducing carbon and how we use our land. This year’s Building Energy conference put on by NESEA (Northeast Sustainable Energy Association) provided compelling information that supports the idea that we can reduce carbon content by using organically based materials. What is encouraging is that this does not have to be a high-tech money-oriented venture. It is common sense, know your earth science (first science class in my high school) and follow where it takes you.

We know that vegetation takes carbon out of the air and gives back oxygen. It is also true that vegetation root systems transfer the carbon to the soil. The plant materials and soil store carbon until it is released by fire or decay. What does this have to do with anything? If we use our land for non- agricultural development, the volume of carbon we take out of the atmosphere is reduced. The agricultural industry, whether it be farming or forestry products, is an important participant in curbing climate change.

Here’s where the triple bottom line comes in. By keeping land in agricultural use, the environmental “win” is in reducing our carbon contribution. Maybe that’s my motivation, but it won’t fly if the other two parts don’t work. The economic win is that our farm land and forests provide new and expanded opportunities with the development of new building products. The economic piece has broad implications both locally and nationally. The social win, especially for a state like Maine, is that rural communities, those that need the economic benefits of agriculture and industry, prosper and maintain strong social networks.

I have been a champion of GrowSmart Maine because it focuses its efforts on not any one of the three parts, but all of them at the same time. The focus is clear: support actions that increase Maine’s triple bottom line, not those that increase one at the expense of others.