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Carbon Offsets: The Debate Continues

Posted on the 17 March 2011 by 2ndgreenrevolution @2ndgreenrev

Carbon Offsets: The Debate ContinuesCarbon offsetting is an area of the green economy that has been in the news for sometime now. Economii.com states that “Carbon offsets are used to reduce the amount of carbon that an individual or institution emits into the atmosphere. Carbon offsets work in a financial system where, instead of reducing its own carbon use, a company can comply with emissions caps by purchasing an offset from an independent organization. The organization will then use that money to fund a project that reduces carbon in the atmosphere.” They go on to mention that individuals “can also engage with this system and similarly pay to offset his or her own personal carbon usage instead of, or in addition to, taking direct measures such as driving less or recycling.” For those interested in learning more, Clean Air Cool Planet produced a primer on the topic.

As of three years ago, PlanetGreen.com pegged carbon offsets at a $100 million a year industry. Last Earth Day the the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and the Christian Science Monitor reported that offsets had ratcheted up to $700 million. With so much money floating around (and numerous articles on the web), two of our writers at 2nd Green Revolution decided to share their thoughts on offsets.

Eric Wilson: I think carbon offsets are a specious area of sustainability. I don’t mind the idea of offsetting in general, if it’s done properly. Conservation – especially locally – is much more meaningful in my mind than paying for 100 acres in a distant land. It goes to my belief with education that it should be local, not faceless.

Chris DeArmond: I agree with you that carbon offsets are kind of sketchy. But, after a company has done everything to reduce its footprint, offsetting what it can’t prevent is arguably valid and worth pursuing. More than just being local, though, I think how the programs impact customers is extremely important.

Eric: You’re right that they are a “last resort.” Customer impact and buy-in are essential. However, too often the marketing of offsets does not achieve this goal of connecting to consumers. As I see them, offsets are still an external device. I realize it is not realistic for consumers to plant a hundred trees in their yard (especially urban apartment dwellers like myself). A personal connection is missing in the current iteration of offsets.

Chris: I agree with you that this link is frequently missing. For example, it’s unlikely that Chevy connected with its customers by throwing $40 million at clean energy projects to offset vehicle emissions. But, I think some companies, including John Deere, succeeded in this to some extent by funding projects on the land of its customers (i.e., farmers). Even when implemented thoughtfully, however, the impact carbon offsets have on customers is modest at best. Do you think huge companies like Google and Yahoo should even consider offsetting?

Eric: Good question. Truthfully, I don’t know. I want to say they should mitigate their impact, but it can’t be a token gesture. Google does some amazing work on energy efficiency, wind power, photovoltaic arrays on their Mountain View campus, as well as plug-in hybrids (as part of google.org). Without these measures, offsets would be empty attempts to placate some environmental component of the consumer/public. To turn the tables, I’d say that unless they do what you said (“after a company has done everything to reduce its footprint, offsetting what it can’t prevent is arguably valid and worth pursuing.”), then absolutely not. In this event, I’d put it out there that they need to consider their consumption models and patterns. Obviously the two you mention (Google and Yahoo) are power hungry (take the double entendre as you will). Does offsetting their emissions sound like greenwashing to you?

Chris: No, I think purchasing offsets is fine as long as the company is continually reducing its footprint. This is somewhat contradictory to the statement you quoted earlier, but companies will always be able to improve in this regard. For example, even though Google went carbon neutral in 2007, it is still working to achieve greater efficiencies in its data centers, and has initiated several other “green”-related programs (e.g., Google PowerMeter and Instant Search). My alma mater, Dickinson College, has also taken a similar path. It started to purchase renewable energy credits to offset 100 percent of electricity use, amounting to $40,000 per year as I remember. Moving forward, it has set a plan to decrease the percentage of offsets in proportion to emissions reductions.

Eric: While we’re on the topic of alma maters, I believe Emory has decided not to sign the College Presidents’ Climate Commitment because, as I understand it, they want to work locally to reduce their impact and have their actions speak for them (as per my previous point). I guess greening is more a market ploy than behavioral shift in my mind. Is there a fundamental change in consumer and company behavior with offsets (via Justin)?

Chris: It’s not a certainty, I think there can be behavior changes inside and outside a company. Like all Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) moves, it could enhance a company’s brand, and encourage customers to purchase its products. Offsets may also contribute to changing corporate culture, and set a trend for environmental stewardship in the general industry. Like all business decisions, companies should consider the upsides and opportunity cost of allocating money for these types of projects. I think John Deere and Dickinson are good examples of taking a pragmatic approach, but I can’t help but wonder how the money might have been used differently.

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