The idea of "carbon neutrality", or reducing one's carbon footprint, has been much in the news lately, what with Al Gore's Academy Award win for "An Inconvenient Truth" and subsequent reports related to the amount of energy his Tennessee home is reported to consume. While the Gores do have a fairly large house, which subsequently consumes a lot of energy, they work to offset the amount of energy they consume by using green power, installing solar panels, and purchasing carbon offsets; the web site referenced in "An Inconvenient Truth" even has a Carbon Calculator to help us calculate our carbon footprint, along with a link to Native Energy, which provides a way to purchase carbon offsets.
Issues related to carbon production are tremendously interesting to me--one of the reasons I no longer buy Peruvian blueberries or meat from the Midwest is because of the number of miles the food has to travel before it arrives in my kitchen. The fewer "food miles", the less petroleum is used; the less petroleum used, the less carbon ends up in the air. But the idea of carbon offsets has always struck me as being similar to the early Roman Catholic tradition of purchasing indulgences. Don't worry about trading in that Hummer for a more fuel-efficient car--just offset it! Concerned about global warming, but still want that 5,000 square foot home? No problem--just give money to an environmental organization and your consience is clean. Go forth, and consume some more. Carbon offsets seem like the perfect "solution" in a society where we might care, but we don't want to be inconvenienced. However, carbon offsets are getting a tremendous amount of attention right now, and it is certainly true that none of us, unless we are committed to living entirely off the grid and growing our own food, can get to carbon neutrality without offsetting at least some of what we produce.
So what is the truth behind carbon neutrality and carbon offsets, and do they work?
Locally, Sustainable Ballard is working towards making Ballard the first carbon neutral community in the nation. Residents are asked to determine their carbon footprint, then purchase offsets (there they are again!). So what, exactly, are carbon offsets?
Carbon offsets are intended to go to projects that directly reduce the amount of carbon entering the atmosphere. So for example, if you want to become "carbon neutral" and pay an organization to fully offset your carbon footprint, the money you pay will go towards renewable energy plants (such as solar, wind, or hydroelectric), tree planting (to help sequester carbon already in the air), or methane projects (to prevent methane from garbage dumps or animal facilities from entering the atmosphere). So far so good--it sounds a great deal like a "cap and trade" system that has been successfully used to reduce the amount of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere, leading to a reduction in acid rain. Companies that participate in a cap and trade system have a limit (or a cap) on how much of a particular pollutant they can produce, and are given credits representing the right to emit up to that level of the pollutant. If a particular company produces more of the pollutant than they have credit for, they must purchase additional credits from companies that have successfully reduced their emission of the targeted pollutant. As a result, companies that are successful in reducing their emissions are able to reap financial rewards by selling credits to those companies that are still highly polluting. Successful cap and trade systems have highly regulated trading systems and strict enforcement; systems without regulated trading systems and enforcement techniques are generally not successful.
Which brings us back to carbon offsets. Carbon offsets, by their nature, are difficult to verify. If I give money to a company that promises to reduce my carbon footprint, I want to be sure that the money is actually going towards a renewable energy project, and not to pay for the director's child to go to Harvard. How can you be sure that the money you give to offset your carbon footprint is actually going towards a relevant project? How are carbon offset purchases regulated, and is there any enforcement?
There are several independent third-party organizations that certify carbon offset projects. Two of the most well-known are the Green-e program from the Center for Resource Solutions, which focuses on project in the United States, and the CDM Gold Standard, which focuses on international offset projects. Carbon offsets purchased from organizations that certify through an independent third-party typically cost more than those carbon offsets purchased from organizations that do not certify their projects. So if you want to pay the smallest amount of money possible in order to set your conscience at ease, go find a non-certified carbon offset program and write them a check. But if you want your money to actually make a difference, pick an organization that is certified (see the Carbon Emissions Offset Directory for a list of carbon offset organizations, along with certification information).
Ultimately, though, there are no regulations or standards around the carbon offset market, and the market is too new to be able to tell whether or not such a system will work. But if carbon offsets are purchased from a certified organization, and steps are taken by each individual to reduce the overall amount of energy consumed by day-to-day living, then the end result should be less carbon entering our atmosphere and a slowing in the pace of global warming. Especially in the United States, where the government is doing less than nothing to address the issue of global warming, factory farming, and other environmental ills, anything that I can do to change how the world works is welcome. And for me, that will mean buying my food locally, using less energy, and, yes, buying carbon offsets to reduce my footprint in the world.