A Consumer's Guide to Becoming Carbon Neutral
Members of the Middlebury College ski team are investing money in wind energy projects so that they can hit the slopes this season without guilt about global warming. The skiers are joining a growing bandwagon of individuals, groups, and companies seeking to offset the greenhouse gases they contribute to the planet.
The band Coldplay planted mango trees in India. Organizers of soccer's World Cup donated funds to clean-energy programs in South Africa. Couples are planning environmentally friendly weddings that cancel out the carbon dioxide emissions generated by their guests' travel. Even Europe's largest bank, HSBC, and media mogul Rupert Murdoch say they are aiming to erase their carbon footprints.
The antiwarming trend is so hot that the New Oxford American Dictionary selected "carbon neutral" as its "word of the year" for 2006. But environmental blogger Joel Makower says the idea is "shaping up to be the Debate of the Year for 2007." There are no standards for carbon offsets and more than a little disagreement on which offsets really make a difference.
Calculating your emissions
If you're eager to calculate the greenhouse gases you emit by, say, commuting to work every day, more than 30 companies and nonprofit organizations have sprung up to help you. Then they'll offer you investment opportunitiesfrom forest planting to farm methane capture reactorsto make up for the burden you add to the atmosphere.
This voluntary market mimics the European Union's carbon emissions trading system, where countries and companies implement their mandatory cutbacks under the Kyoto agreement. But in the voluntary market there's no United Nations oversight, and there are no rules for what constitutes a legitimate carbon offset.
"Almost anyone can offer to sell you almost anything and claim that this purchase will make you carbon neutral," says A Consumer's Guide to Retail Carbon Offset Providers, by the nonprofit group Clean Air-Cool Planet. The publication provides some guidance, but the issues are so complex that consumers have to wade through 44 pages explaining mind-bending concepts like "additionality."
One firm the guide recommends is Clean Air-Cool Planet's business partner NativeEnergy, a for-profit company in New Hampshire that is owned by the nonprofit Intertribal Council on Utility Policy. NativeEnergy is the firm that helped provide carbon neutrality to former Vice President Al Gore's movie, book, and DVD An Inconvenient Truth. It also helped Middlebury's ski team determine that it was responsible for about 100 tons of carbon emissionsmostly due to team air travel. With its focus on renewable energy projects that benefit American Indians and family farms, NativeEnergy arranged for the skiers to donate $1,200 to wind turbines on tribal land in North Dakota and Minnesota and to an agricultural methane project in Pennsylvania.
Canceling your carbon
Websites sell offsets that range from $5 to $25 per ton of carbon, with an average of about $10. Most Americans can cancel out their personal carbon footprints for about $100 a year. There are competing philosophies regarding whether credit price correlates to quality. The Clean Air-Cool Planet guide argues that lower-priced credits are not as good because they often go to existing wind farms or forests that don't need additional financial help. But the Carbon Fund and other providers argue that the price represents the subsidy necessary to make the project viable so, solar energy in overcast Seattle costs more than in sunny Arizona. Instead of focusing on price, ask providers about the real issue is your donation going to a project that would not have happened without your help? Projects that would have happened anyway are not "additional," in carbon neutral lingo, and so are of questionable value as an offset.
Clean Air-Cool Planet's guide also gives high ratings to two other U.S. providers of carbon offsets, the nonprofits Climate Trust and SustainableTravel/MyClimate. But the guide says that nonprofits are not inherently better than for-profits, since some focus narrowly on one type of favored project, such as forestry.
Although planting treeswhich absorb carbon dioxideis a popular form of offset, even it can be controversial. "It's fashionable to think planting a forest in Brazil is the very best thing to do, but it does nothing to fundamentally change the way you use energy," says Jasmine Hyman, marketing director of Gold Standard, a nonprofit carbon watchdog group. A foundation started by the World Wildlife Fund and several indigenous environmental groups in the developing world, Gold Standard seeks to put its brand on what it views as the best offset projectsrenewable energy by developers who have worked closely with local populations, mainly in poorer countries.
Currently, it has only six approved projects, with 50 more seeking approval in the pipeline. The bank HSBC works with Gold Standard to achieve carbon neutrality. Another provider worth considering is Terrapass, a business started by a University of Pennsylvania professor and his students. It offers consumers a simple calculator for figuring vehicle emissions based on make, model, and year. Terrapass has a partnership with Ford, which has been trying to burnish its environmental image.
Just as when considering a charitable donation, consumers should ask what percentage of an organization's funding goes into overhead expenses and what fraction is spent on actual projects. (Some of these do-good donations claim to be tax-deductible and some do not; don't brave this thicket without a tax adviser.)
Consumers also should be sure the company or nonprofit they choose has a credible outside party validating its work. Alsoand here's where it gets really complicatedask if your provider can demonstrate that the offsets are not sold twice, three times, or more.
Advocates say that despite the many issues, carbon offsets are a great way to raise awareness of the global warming issue. They also give Americans a way of chipping in to help, especially now that a Massachusetts Institute of Technology survey shows that citizens now rank climate change as the nation's most pressing environmental concern, even though there's no law in place to address it. But expect to do a lot of research if you want to be sure of making an informed choice. Kermit the Frog didn't know how lucky he was. Being green was easy compared with being neutral.