4.16.2007

going carbon neutral

What does anyone know about going "carbon neutral"? Are any of you currently practicing this? Do you have plans to start? Do you feel its a legitimate and useful way to contribute to the fight against climate change?

I've been reading about going carbon neutral at David Suzuki's website.
Going carbon neutral is an easy way to take responsibility for the greenhouse gas emissions we create every time we drive our cars, take a plane, or turn on our computers. It's based on the principle that, since climate change is a global problem, an emission reduction made elsewhere has the same positive effect as one made locally.

Here's how it works: if you add polluting emissions to the atmosphere, you can effectively subtract them by purchasing 'carbon offsets'. Carbon offsets are simply credits for emission reductions achieved by projects elsewhere, such as wind farms, solar installations, or energy efficiency projects. By purchasing these credits, you can apply them to your own emissions and reduce your net climate impact.

Why Go Carbon Neutral?

To solve the problem of climate change, we all need to take account of our personal carbon emissions and make continued efforts to reduce them wherever possible. But it is impossible to reduce our carbon emissions to zero, no matter how hard we try. Going carbon neutral by purchasing carbon offsets is a practical and affordable way to do something about those remaining emissions.

In addition, by voluntarily calculating and assigning a cost to your carbon emissions, you can begin to prepare for the inevitability of an economy in which carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are regulated and taxed. Whether you are a business or an individual, this is an important step towards managing your carbon emissions efficiently and identifying potential for reductions and savings.

Purchasing high quality carbon offsets from projects such as wind farms also helps support the transition to a sustainable energy economy by providing an additional source of revenue to developers of renewable energy.

While voluntary offset programs should not be seen as a substitute for comprehensive government regulations to reduce greenhouse gases (e.g. through implementation of the Kyoto Protocol), they are a step in the right direction, and an opportunity to demonstrate leadership on climate change.

It goes on to list corporations, sports teams, huge special events, bands and other enterprises that have already gone carbon neutral. It's an impressive list. (Scroll down to "Who's Doing It".)

And I guess that's what concerns me. This sounds like an important step, and because it's David Suzuki, I'm inclined to embrace it. (Al Gore has a similar section on his website.) I'm just naturally suspicious of anything that sounds too easy. Which doesn't mean I won't do it, just that I have questions.

Your thoughts?

18 comments:

James said...

Carbon neutrality is a great idea, but purchasing offsets won't mean much until everyone's doing it -- which means non-voluntary regulation, which Bush &c won't do.

Carbon offsets can only work properly if there are also emission caps. Otherwise, companies just buy more and more offsets while pumping more and more CO2 into the air, making the whole system more unstable (there's only so much offsetting you can do before you start running out of ways to fix the carbon).

The preferred system, so far as I know, is a trade-and-cap system in which companies are given a carbon quota. Companies which come in under the quota can sell the unused portion to other companies. At first glance this looks like it just moves things around, but the idea is that it makes emissions more expensive for those companies that don't work to reduce them, while rewarding the companies that do reduce emissions -- giving them a financial advantage over those that don't.

This has worked in the past. US corporations greatly reduced their sulfur emissions quite quickly a couple of decades back when the gov't put a cap-and-trade system in place for sulfur. Before the cap-and-trade system went in, the Reagan admin had gone with a system of "voluntary reductions" (very similar to Bush's current system for CO2 emissions) which did absolutely nothing.

A number of organizations are pushing for a cap-and-trade system in the US (I believe there's one in Europe already).

At an individual level, there are a lot of things you can do. The most recent Science Friday podcast (the podcast of NPR's Talk of the Nation's Friday science show) featured interviews with some people involved in the National Day of Climate Action (which was this past Saturday). They had a bunch of suggestions.

Some of those:

- The number one thing to do is make sure your home is well insulated.

- Next, eat locally-produced food. The carbon emissions from transporting food around the planet are enormous. One example Ira Flatow (the host) mentioned was seeing bottled water from the South Pacific in New York -- the city with the best municipal water in the US!

- Next, avoid flying. Airplane emissions are really bad on a passenger-mile basis. Drive, or even better, take the train.

Sarah Gates said...

Carbon neutrality is a great idea, but purchasing offsets won't mean much until everyone's doing it

I agree here, especially with regard to business, but I also think that carbon offsets are a useful tool, and I'm optimistic that the US will institute a sensible (though, knowing the US, overly ponderous) cap and trade policy in, oh, another two years...

I personally do offset my (fairly low) carbon production, mostly for the same reason that we switched to ConEd's green power option. It seems as though I should put my money where my mouth is. Does my switching to renewable power change the amount of renewable energy coming onto the grid? No. Does it mean that the individual electrons passing through my CFL lamps came from a wind plant? Laughable. What it does do is let the utility comany know that green energy is something that consumers want, something that is commercially viable.

I do recommend being very selective about what carbon offsets you pick - make sure that they are subsudizing something that wouldn't have happened anyhow, otherwise we're in the same place.

Have you read No Impact Man? His approach is obviously experimental and way too extreme for the majority of us, but it's prompting some interesting debate.

L-girl said...

Of course I'm aware of cap-and-trade, and why it's important. My question is more is this worth doing on its own? I think the answer is yes, but I hope not only because of the message it sends. What Sarah says about choosing offsets wisely is important.

Like most people these days, I've been introducing more "green" into my life - buying locally whenever possible, reducing packaging, and so forth.

I'd never give up air travel, though, unless I was forced to. I have a feeling people who choose not to fly weren't crazy about flying in the first place, or simply don't care very much about travel. Similarly, most people don't give up driving unless they prefer to (and of course, if other modes of transit are available and feasible).

On the other hand, I can easily forego power-sucking gadgetry like an HD TV or any number of other toys - because I don't care very much about those things. A lot of green trade-offs and decisions are made this way, I think.

L-girl said...

Have you read No Impact Man?

I hadn't heard of this yet, thanks. Another reader alerted me to the woman who made no trash (including recylcing) for one month. Now I can't find the blog or the reference, but someone reading this will know.

James said...

What it does do is let the utility comany know that green energy is something that consumers want, something that is commercially viable.

Definitely. Consumer pressure is going to be very important in this, if we're going to get all the car makers producing plug-in hybrid bio-diesel vehicles. :)

My question is more is this worth doing on its own? I think the answer is yes, but I hope not only because of the message it sends.

The message is actually very important, and not just for the companies, but for your neighbours. When people see that you can go green without giving up quality of life (and you can, without much trouble), they become more likely to follow your lead.

In terms of practical impact, one person reducing emissions is pretty trivial; but one person helping to convince everyone around him or her to do the same is vital.

I'd never give up air travel, though, unless I was forced to.

Don't give it up, but use it more sparingly. For exapmle, if you're travelling to, say, Montreal, take the train instead of flying. Consider taking a boat to Europe instead of a plane. And so on.

Once we get some really high-quality batteries in production (and people are working on them), low-emission short-haul airplanes may become possible, which would also change matters. A number of companies are looking into resurrecting airships, too -- and airships are far more energy efficient than airplanes (though, of course, slower -- and airship to Europe would be about as fast as a cruise ship).

L-girl said...

Don't give it up, but use it more sparingly.

I know what you're saying, and maybe for frequent-flyer business people, it's a good pitch.

For me personally, no way. I'd never fly to Montreal, but I'd never take the train when I could drive instead. Since I don't fly for business (I have a few times on writing assignments, but generally do not), only for personal travel, it's just not something I'd ever change unless forced to.

My point above - travel, electronic gadgetry - is that most people will reduce their use as long as it doesn't greatly impact the quality of their lives. I'm skeptical as to how much impact we can have without real sacrifice. I'm doing the small steps anyway, of course. I'm just skeptical.

The message is actually very important

I agree, it is. But the practical effect of our actions has to be more than message, or it's just so much hot air.

Pun unintentional, I swear! :)

L-girl said...

Here's an article from Suzuki's site on how to choose offsets, including which are not really offsets at all.

Bridgegeek said...

I thought you might be interested in this link:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/ethical_man/default.stm

Newsnight is a late night news/politics TV show in the UK. For a year one of their journalists has been trying to live in a greener way and reduce his (long suffering) family's carbon footprint under the supervision of a professor from the University of Surrey. Carbon offsetting is dealt with in the episode on flying - essentially the expert was very sceptical about whether offsetting was a valid way of reducing your carbon use.

Personally I think it is a good way of dealing with what's left when you have done all else that is reasonably possible to reduce your carbon footprint. I would like to see all products carry a carbon use mark (based on manufacture, distance travelled etc.) in the same way they carry nutritional information.

Sarah Gates said...

That pun was unintentional? I would have done that on purpose!

I do think our individual actions are importaint, for the same reason that I think our votes are importaint (antiquated systems notwithstanding.) One doesn't make a big difference, but if everyone chooses not to do anything because they won't have a major impact, then nothing happens. My one, your one, james's one - pretty soon we're getting somewhere.

My point above - travel, electronic gadgetry - is that most people will reduce their use as long as it doesn't greatly impact the quality of their lives.

This may be so, but even the reductions where it doesn't cause sacrifice are worthwhile. Maybe you can give up your power sucking gagdetry without any pain but must have air travel, and perhaps someone else needs their HD tv and what not, but chooses to take the train everywhere. It doesn't have to be an all or nothing choice.

Bridgegeek said...

The link didn't fit in the box....

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/
programmes/newsnight/ethical_man/
default.stm

James said...

My point above - travel, electronic gadgetry - is that most people will reduce their use as long as it doesn't greatly impact the quality of their lives. I'm skeptical as to how much impact we can have without real sacrifice. I'm doing the small steps anyway, of course.

One of the interesting aspects of this is that there is an awful lot we can do without major sacrifice, if companies put the resources into the research and development to produce the replacements for our current energy technology.

For example, one of the biggest draws of power in North America is air conditioning of office buildings. Right now in San Francisco there's a prototype building going up that uses absolutely no A/C at all. It does all its cooling through a series of computer-controlled ventilation systems that make use of the wind off the ocean drawn through the building. Apparently this will not only reduce power use a lot, it'll cut the cost of operating the building by a huge amount (I can't remember if the interviewee said "by 25%" or "to 25%" of the cost a similar, conventional building would have. Even "by 25%" is impressive, though).

According to that Science Friday interview I mentioned above, European energy use per capita is 1/2 that of North America, yet their standard of living is quite comparable to ours. Sure, there are some significant differences -- Europe doesn't have the huge, sparsely populated areas that North America does -- but even allowing for that, there's a lot of room for North America to trim fat.

And even though they're so much leaner than NA, the Europeans are still looking to slim their energy use down further.

L-girl said...

Thanks, Bridgegeek. I'll check it out.

I would like to see all products carry a carbon use mark (based on manufacture, distance travelled etc.) in the same way they carry nutritional information.

I've been reading about this - how it would be calculated and such. If it could be standardized like nutritional information (which was a major consumer battle!) it would be excellent.

Sarah, you're right, about our individual choices adding up. It's important to remember that. It's like Gore's pie chart in the movie.

That pun was unintentional? I would have done that on purpose!

I pun unintentionally all the time. I guess it's the way my mind works. I never realize they're puns til they're out of my mouth (or my keyboard).

L-girl said...

European energy use per capita is 1/2 that of North America, yet their standard of living is quite comparable to ours.

That's impressive.

Sure, there are some significant differences -- Europe doesn't have the huge, sparsely populated areas that North America does

Or the extreme temperature range - or they're not supposed to, anyway, and didn't, until recently. People living in inhospitably hot or cold climates pose a different challenge.

but even allowing for that, there's a lot of room for North America to trim fat.

Now that's a great pun! :)

Idiot/Savant said...

I live in NZ, and went carbon neutral last year, using CarbonZero. It's easy enough - I track a few important stats for the calculator, and add on some fudge factor just in case, and buy enough credits to cover it. The scheme I use gets its credits from native forest regeneration and complies with Kyoto rules, so its among the more robust and has significant ecological co-benefits.

Its resulted in a few lifestyle changes, and a bit more thought about long-distance car travel, but its more just a way of putting my money where my mouth is on climate change, and assuaging my guilt over the things its too difficult to change ATM.

It's no impact for proper national policy - but its a small way to help make a difference.

K said...

It is possible for your carbon offsets to be neutral, but only if you are responsible for a piece of land that does not have optimal carbon capture. Trees and plant matter capture carbon dioxide, and this has been the main way that carbon dioxide has been regulated in the world for as long as plant life has existed (billions of years).

One thing that I find interesting, is that the well-managed forestry industries (whom I don't speak for) are actually turning out to be good for the carbon situation (only where they are well managed). In a normal mature forest, the amount of carbon released by decomposition roughly equals the amount of carbon captured and stored in wood. If you cut down the mature trees, and plant seedlings, virtually all of the activity on that land is carbon capture and wood growth. So the wooden table that you have in your kitchen is actually a form of carbon storage.

Back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, the temperature was actually a lot warmer than today (I took a course on this), likely because there was more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Over eons, the decomposing animal and plant matter was buried underground, and now we are screwing ourselves over by rapidly unburrying all of that carbon.

Just some interesting discussion points.

K said...

Just to clarify, I meant to emphasize that subsidizing wind farm energy, for example, is a very important thing to do, but it is an action that involves reducing carbon emissions, but has nothing to do with actually removing or "offsetting" or "subtracting" any carbon from the atmosphere. So it keeps your carbon emissions from going higher, but does not "offset" any carbon emissions you may make in other activities.

K said...

Also, I worked it out from several sources that driving is comparably bad with low numbers of passengers in a car over long distances to flying. Otherwise, the price of plane tickets from Halifax to Toronto would be higher than the price of filling up my gas tank the whole way, which clearly isn't the case.

L-girl said...

Hey there K, thank you for your interesting comments.

it is an action that involves reducing carbon emissions, but has nothing to do with actually removing or "offsetting" or "subtracting" any carbon from the atmosphere. So it keeps your carbon emissions from going higher, but does not "offset" any carbon emissions you may make in other activities.

I was thinking about this when I asked my original question. In a way the term is misleading. I can imagine people feeling good about offsetting their carbon emissions, as if they were neutralizing them or cancelling them out. Many people refer to recycling the same way (and I'm sure I've been guilty of that as well) - "it's ok to do such and such, as I'm recycling."

There's really nothing for that but education.

Also, I worked it out from several sources that driving is comparably bad with low numbers of passengers in a car over long distances to flying.

It seems there's no consensus about flying. Every calculator assigns a different value to flights of comparable distances.