The 3 Deadly C’s & Sustainability

This article proposes that above all else, sustainability should be focussed on tackling the 3 deadly C’s. These aspects of human activity, although harmless in moderation, have become extremely dangerous in a world of 7 billion people.

The 3 deadly C’s are:

1.    Combustion

2.    Cattle

3.    Chainsaws


These should be used as little as possible. The sustainability challenges surrounding the 3 deadly C’s are considerable. This is why Lovelock (2006) identified them as critical areas for management. James Lovelock’s 2006 work The Revenge of Gaia serves as a major point of departure for this article.

1.     Combustion

Combustion comes in at number one. The latest figures show that energy accounts for 2/3 of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and 80% of CO2 (IEA, 2016). What these latest figures make abundantly clear, is that the sustainability industry needs to put reducing emissions from combustion front and centre. Without exception, no sustainability strategy can be deemed adequate unless it is focussed on achieving significant reductions in the combustion of fossil fuels. This is imperative.

As the breakdown in the IEA (2016) chart below shows, energy makes up an enormous share of anthropogenic GHG emissions.


As we know, the increasing demand for energy comes as a result of global economic growth and development. This is why a new type of development, a more sustainable version of development is needed now more than ever.

The growing world energy demand from fossil fuels is playing a key role in rising CO2 emissions. There is one energy source in particular, which must be phased out without delay and that is coal. Emissions from the combustion of coal are a serious problem.


The latest IEA report reveals, that although coal represented 29% of the world’s energy supply in 2014, it accounted for 46% of the global CO2 emissions (IEA, 2016). This is due to its heavy carbon content per unit of energy released. As we can see, coal is having an exponential effect on global CO2 emissions. Its use is dangerous and should be phased out, without delay.

2.     Cattle

Cattle come in at number two in James Lovelock’s list of the 3 deadly C’s. Everybody needs to eat, that we know. But certain aspects of human activity are presently unsustainable. Chief among these is cattle based agriculture.


As we can see in Figure 1, agriculture makes up 11% of global anthropogenic GHG emissions. In order to make progress on sustainability, this figure must be reduced. This has to occur at the same time as populations and living standards in developing countries rise. This necessitates that the farming of cattle be reduced. There is simply no way around this problem.

Let’s look at the facts. One cow releases 70 – 120 kg of Methane per year. Methane is a greenhouse gas like carbon dioxide. But the negative effect on the climate of Methane is 23 times higher than the effect of CO2. This is extremely worrying and must be factored into considerations on the role of cattle based agriculture as society’s transition towards sustainability.

As we can see from the DEFRA (2008) table below, cattle have an excessive impact on the environment, when their CO2e emissions are compared to their productivity. Cattle farming on the level that we have now is simply incompatible with our desires to achieve more sustainable development.


Beyond merely the GHG consequences of cattle farming, this industry poses other sustainability challenges. All too often the sewage effluents from cattle find their way into rivers and streams. On a small scale this would not be a problem, but in industrial quantities, this causes enormous problems to local river ecosystems and their biota.

What is the solution? The solution is to eat much less meat and dairy products.

3.     Chainsaws

Chainsaws come in at number three in James Lovelock’s list of the 3 deadly C’s. The need for farmland, timber and minerals is leading to the clearance of forests. When practiced sustainably, forestry can benefit man and forest. But all too often this is not the case.


For a great length of time, mankind lived in harmony with the forests of the world. On a small scale, tribal societies and their slash and burn nomadic lifestyles pose no threat to the environment. Their footprint is small, and in time the forests they disturb return to normality. Chainsaws have changed this equation considerably.

The destruction of the tropical rainforests of the world is particularly concerning. Grainger (1993) described the tropical rainforests as “the world’s most valuable ecosystem.” I have to agree with him.

However, chainsaws are leading to the tropical rain forests being removed at an alarming rate. This poses a number of sustainability challenges. These enormous forests remove atmospheric CO2 and we need them to continue doing this. These forests are also crucial to local microclimate regulation and when removed in significant quantities, pose risks for the sustainability of the remaining forest ecosystem.

The impact of this one invention was so dramatic, that Lovelock (1988) exclaimed:

Chainsaws are an invention more evil than the hydrogen bomb.”

As we can see, James Lovelock was extremely concerned about the impact that chainsaws were having. But the good news is, that more consumers are are opting to buy paper from responsibly managed sources. There is reason to be optimistic about this trend.

What you need to know

This article explored James Lovelock’s list of the 3 deadly C’s and their relation to sustainability. These are aspects of human activity that have an exponentially damaging impact upon the environment. They include:

1.    Combustion

2.    Cattle

3.    Chainsaws

We looked at the excessive CO2 emissions from combustion, the extreme methane emissions from cattle and the destructive impact of chainsaws. The 3 deadly C’s are a diverse grouping.  But they bring together 3 pressing aspects of human activity which are causing tremendous damage to the environment. In order to raise awareness, I approve of the grouping.

The sustainability industry needs to make managing the the 3 deadly C’s a priority. These are 3 of the most damaging aspects of human activity and resources should be concentrated on reducing them.

A world without fossil fuel combustion is possible, a world with less cattle agriculture is possible and a world where all paper comes from responsible sources is possible. Let’s build a better world.

We will learn more about sustainability in subsequent posts.

Thank you for reading

By Barnaby Nash


DEFRA (2008). Environmental Impacts of Food Production & Consumption. Available from:

Grainger, A (1993). Controlling Tropical Deforestation.

IEA (2016). CO2 Emissions From Fuel Combustion Highlights (2016 edition). Available from:

Lovelock, J (1988). Ages of Gaia.

Lovelock, J (2006). The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth Is Fighting Back – and How We Can Still Save Humanity.

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