Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Should you go Carbon Neutral?

A lot of companies are advertising that they are “carbon neutral” and Al Gore’s site among others suggests that individuals calculate their impact and then buy offsets based on the number they get. There is obviously not much to debate if the purveyors of offsets are crooked, but assuming we are buying from legitimate “offsetters” the question still remains: do we think this is a good idea?

It does feel a little like a cocktail party conversation topic rather than a true solution: after all, how many people are really going to buy these? Enough to actually be useful? On the other hand, I can understand why big shots who have legitimate reasons to, say, fly hundreds of thousands of miles or people in the public eye who worry about their green credentials might want to buy some bragging rights/peace of mind, a la Richard Branson. However, I can’t say I think any number of offsets could ever excuse a 20,000 square foot house—I mean, really, how much space can one family possibly need? Ditto driving massive gas-guzzlers.

An argument I find more compelling concerns experimenting with and developing the market itself. I am convinced that we will need a variety of different solutions: voluntary, mandatory, market, government, industrial, residential. It is worth testing the market for offsets, if only to measure the levels of public commitment to voluntary solutions.

Personally, I will have to do more research to see if I think offsets give an adequate environmental bang for my buck—versus just giving the money to the Sierra Club or planting some trees. As far as Green Factoid is concerned, the highest priority for everyone should be curbing their own energy use. So screw in those CFL bulbs, turn off that A/C, and then rejoice in the savings on your electricity bill, and as a bonus, should you choose to go that route, you will have less emissions to offset.

For More Information:
Environment Defense has an excellent article discussing the principles behind carbon neutrality, the usual (mostly specious) arguments advanced against it, and recommendations for some legitimate places to buy offsets.

Carbon Offsets Count

1 comment:

Lindsay Sturman said...

This is a great start -- but if the goal is impact, many economists believe the only solution is "carbon taxes" or "green taxes." The NY Times endorsed the growing movement yesterday:

Global Warming and Your Wallet

Published: July 6, 2007

At long last, Congress is showing a willingness to confront global warming. The Senate’s recent approval of higher fuel economy standards is a constructive step and key lawmakers are promising comprehensive legislation this year that will, for the first time, limit the emission of greenhouse gases.

But for all the talk about warming, leading politicians have yet to educate their constituents (and their colleagues) about an unpleasant and inescapable truth: any serious effort to fight warming will require everyone to pay more for energy. According to most scientists, the long-term costs of doing nothing — flooding, famine, drought — would be even higher than the costs of acting now. But unless Americans understand and accept the trade-off — higher prices today to avoid calamity later — the requisite public support for real change is unlikely to build.

Energy is currently underpriced in part because its cost does not reflect the damage inflicted by fossil fuels. Underpricing leads to overconsumption. Worse, it leads to underinvestment in alternatives. As long as today’s energy is relatively cheap, there is little incentive for private firms to develop new fuels and technologies.

When the market, on its own, fails to arrive at the proper price for goods and services, it’s the job of government to correct the failure. There are two ways to do so: higher taxes and new regulation.

Over a decade ago, the Clinton administration floated the sound idea of a tax on the carbon content of various fuels, like coal and oil. A tax on carbon, the main greenhouse gas, would cause energy prices to rise, thereby curbing consumption and providing a powerful incentive to invest in alternatives. The revenue from the tax could be used, in part, to subsidize the higher energy costs for low-income Americans. But the idea went nowhere, and new taxes remain a political nonstarter, at least for now.

The approach preferred by influential senators — including Joseph Lieberman, John Warner and Jeff Bingaman — as well as many businesses and environmental groups, is to develop a cap-and-trade system. The government would impose a cap on the overall amount of carbon that could be emitted and at the same time allow regulated firms, like utilities and oil refiners, to buy and sell the right to those limited emissions. Firms that could easily reduce their emissions could sell their allowances to firms that could not.

The big plus is that the nation would set an enforceable ceiling on carbon emissions, which would be lowered over time. Such a system has worked well to lower emissions of sulfur dioxide and other power plant pollutants and its proponents believe it can do the same for greenhouse gases.

Because a trading system would not impose new taxes, some in Congress might try to portray it as a free ride. But it would work the same way higher taxes would work — by raising the cost of fossil fuels. The higher prices would encourage efficiency and spur investment in a range of clean-energy technologies, without which major reductions would be almost impossible to achieve.

As the year rolls on, Congress will entertain several cap-and-trade bills: some more aggressive and costly, others offering various escape mechanisms should prices get too high. But one fundamental point must be kept in mind. We are now using the atmosphere as a free dumping ground for carbon emissions. Unless we — industry and consumers — are made to pay a significant price for doing so, we will never get anywhere.