Carbon neutrality – the holy grail

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.

ballardlibrary.JPGIssues 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.

15 Responsesto “Carbon neutrality – the holy grail”

  1. brad says:

    The unique thing about climate change that many people don't understand is that a ton of carbon dioxide reduced in Borneo is as good as a ton reduced in Boston. Unlike "normal" pollutants, greenhouse gases mix globally in the atmosphere, so the climatic benefits of reducing emissions are the same no matter where the actual reduction takes place. The other thing to understand is that it costs a lot less to reduce a ton of carbon in certain parts of the world than in others. Reducing a ton of CO2 in Japan is expensive, for example, because the country has already picked most of the low-hanging fruit and is very energy-efficient. In a developing country, on the other hand, hundreds of tons of carbon can be reduced or sequestered very cheaply. So it makes sense to put your money where it will reduce the most carbon, giving you the most bang for your buck.

  2. Butter Bitch says:

    Thanks Brad--an interesting aside is that, based on a study completed a couple of years ago at Lawrence Livermore, it appears that reforestation projects in higher latitudes actually have a net warming effect on the climate, while reforestation projects based in the tropics have a net cooling effect (see for the full skinny). So in the case of reforestation, not all projects are created equally.

  3. brad says:

    Yes, and while many people associate "carbon offset" with "forestry project" there are many ways to offset carbon by investing in renewable energy or energy efficiency projects in developing countries, methane reduction projects, etc.

    Carbon offsets are a legitimate way for those of us who can't afford to buy a Prius or a photovoltaic electricity system for our homes to reduce our contribution to climate change. I think offsets are best used as the second half of a one-two punch: first you do what you can to reduce your emissions directly (compact fluorescents, fuel-efficient car, public transport, energy star fridge and washer, etc.), and then, once you get to the point where reducing your emissions further starts getting really expensive, buy offsets to eliminate the rest.

  4. Butter Bitch says:

    Absolutely agree. And even if you can afford to buy a Prius or a photovolatic electricity system, you still have a carbon footprint, albeit a smaller one (of course, if you live in the lovely Pacific Northwest, your electricity is hydro, which doesn't contribute carbon to the atmosphere).

  5. Venusia says:

    Living in Quebec, my electricity is hydro, and my husband and I determined online that it would cost app. 100$ to offset our car, fireplace and product-fuel miles. That doesn't seem like very much to me at all. Those calcs may have been really off, but I was expecting the offsetting to at least equal our fuel cost.

    My weakness is sparkling water, we buy half a dozen bottles a week, always felt bad about that, but I've been researching online and found that using a soda siphon and CO2 chargers, I could make my own carbonated water at home. Not sure if the CO2 either manufactured in the lab or sourced from CO2 wells is increasing emissions or not, but at least it would eliminate the fuel miles and plastic bottles.

  6. brad says:

    Venusia, you don't have to worry about the CO2 in those soda cartridges; I remember researching that years ago and it's not from a fossil fuel source. Also you shouldn't have to worry about offsetting emissions from wood you burn in your fireplace (but maybe you're talking about a gas fireplace?). Firewood in New England and Québec is generally sustainable and isn't likely to have any net contribution to global warming.

  7. Hmm... I scored a 0.9 ("Much Smaller Than Average 7.5") but what that did not take into account is we have 1090 acres of forest land soaking up carbon. That would make our family's carbon impact deeply in the negative numbers - we're net carbon depositers. The calculator fails to account for the fact that rural folk tend to have a fair bit of forest land. In our town (Orange, Vermont, USA) the _average_ family owns over 100 acres of forest land.

  8. Emily says:

    I am rather shocked to find out that my carbon footprint is "average," despite R-60 insulation in the roof, compact flourescents in every major outlet, a tiny monthly electric bill, and a Prius in the garage. :/ Walter, how on earth did you come up with a 0.9??

  9. brad says:

    Emily, as someone who develops carbon calculators as part of my job, I can tell you that most calculators (including the one on Gore's site) use a lot of broad-brush assumptions. The estimates of user-friendly calculators (the ones that take less than 10 or 15 minutes to enter your information) could easily be off by tens or even hundreds of tons and are really meant to give you only a ballpark figure. To get a more accurate estimate requires a much more sophisticated calculator and a lot more effort on your part. Most people aren't willing to put hours into figuring out their emissions, so the online calculators out there have to compromise by using national-average assumptions and emission factors. The benefit is that the calculator is easier to use; the drawback is that the results are less accurate.

  10. brad says:

    Er, I meant to say "tens or even hundreds of pounds" not tons! My guess is that most online greenhouse gas calculators are accurate only to within a few thousand pounds. But they are at least roughly accurate, and accuracy is more important than precision.

  11. Emily, I think it may be in a large part due to the fact that I live and work at home so I don't travel much at all. We might put 1,500 miles on a year, probably a lot less. We also don't use much electricity, no gas, no oil heat, etc. We also have a fairly small house occupied by five people so that is just less square footage. We just don't use much fossil fuel and that seems to be a big focus of the questions.

    There are a lot of things the calculator doesn't take into account that would lower a lot of people's footprints even more. For example, we own a lot of forest land that is absorbing carbon from the air. We raise almost all our own veggies, almost all our own meat and about half our fruit so that means a lot less shipping and less use of petrochemical fertilizers.

    On the flip side, we heat with wood, burning about 2 to 3 cord a year. That is wood which we cut off of our own land but the questionnaire didn't ask about that so it missed that carbon. I think a cord of wood weighs about 1,000 lbs (???) so 3 * 1,000 / 5 people / 2,000 = 0.3 additional tons of carbon per year. That would raise our foot print to 0.9+0.3 = 1.2 tons of carbon a year.

    As Brad says, it's a rough number. My real number if you don't include the trees is probably closer to the 1.2 tons. But if you include the trees then it is probably deeply negative. I'm not sure how to calculate that. I could probably figure it out from tree growth rates and per acre densities... Hmm...

  12. DC of New Haven,CT says:

    I'm interested in learning about ways to protect our invironment, alast, heaven on earth. I've been operating solo to do little things to protect or inhance the planet such as - I planted 10 (dormant baby)trees last fall. They were planted in Amherst,MA in a friend's yard (I live in a Condo and don't have the needed space)and am anxiously awaiting the warmmer days to see if they survived both the winter and the mail transport delivery to me. I must confess I'm totaly ignorant about CO2 footprints and calculations. I just retired and have always enjoyed growing from seed but never had enough spare time to dedicate to the task until now. (I use to travel a lot in my job) What is a good source to get educated on CO2/footprint calculations.

  13. brad says:

    DC, there are a bunch of greenhouse gas calculators out there that you can use to estimate your carbon footprint.

    Here are links to a couple you could try, in addition to the one on Al Gore's site, already linked above:

    EPA's Household Greenhouse Gas Emissions Calculator

    The World Resources Institute's SafeClimate personal carbon footprint calculator

  14. lynn says:

    What bothers me is....that while Gore and all these people are talking about 'carbon-offsets', Gore, and a million others have more than two children and are still living in ridiculously large houses called mansions, and 'jet-driving' their way around the world...I'm still watching this state become more and more overpopulated, while more big, boring, ugly, water sucking suburban sprawl spreads out over the landscape...which means more cars, more rude, crappy drivers on the road, more noise pollution, and more garbage dumps filled to full capacity so we gotta' go dump it in someone else's 'yard', while developers pocket off the destruction...

    Instead of people yackin' about 'carbon-offsets'...I'd like for people to start thinking more seriously about 'quality of life' again, a return to civility and actual liberties...And I don't hear one peap out of Gore, or anybody else in leadership about doing away with Corporatist (North-American-F***-Them-All) NAFTA treaty, or the god-awful NAFTA highways that are going to rake over even more land, clogging us up with even more cars and trucks, and join Mexico, Canada, and the we'll all become one giant, overpopulated glutenous 'Amero' mess...

    Needless to say, I'm not impressed with Gore, or the likes of him...So much of 'the system' which we are all a part of is based and supported by wastefulness, with an insane focus on materialism...The only true beneficial change I can see, is to create a simpler life again...Besides supporting smaller local farmers...Smaller eco-homes, smaller more efficient cars, only one or two kids a family, adopt unwanted children, keep struggling for social, economic, political justice, womens education...get more serious about public transportation...and get people to work near their homes making most commuting obsolete...

    Oh well...maybe that would be a start?...

  15. Hello Carbon Neutral fans

    If you type in guess what you come to, one of my many websites regarding how to offset emissions; that is not what got me started, it is just a byproduct of where I see the real problem which is the overall destructive results of using hydrocarbons. How the use and conversion of oil into energy is expanding modern society beyond supportable boundaries is my concern. One hundred years ago there were 1 billion humans now it is over 6.6, and over 14% of the earth was covered in rainforest now it is below 7%, the fact is this may all come to a screeching halt, and this is not a pretty picture for us to imagine, not much of a legacy for our children is it? I am working on a model to replenish nature hoping to help head off pending disasters like global warming with real down to earth fixes, reforesting is a unique thing and it offsets carbon by storing it in the wood, and wood growing is profitable as you can see on the world clock, several hectors, “about 2.5 acres” per minute is disappearing, thus wood will soon be a commodity in short supply. Our program sequesters carbon and also is taking back the rainforest for nature, by dedicating these wood farms back into native species once the initial harvest is complete some where between 15 and 25 years from now. We are in the interim preparing the area for this by maintaining the land that is not fit for wood production, immediately into Perpetual Forest and as trees are thinned we are going in with native species indigenous to the region, by the time the last tree is cut, it will be native rainforest in perpetuity, protected in trust by the Tropical Sierra Foundation, There is so much more but this will get you thinking. By the way your website is very well done and is very informative and I appreciate your efforts.