Thursday, August 16, 2007

Carbon Neutral - Or Just a Clean Conscience?

Two years ago I had never even heard the phrase "Carbon Neutral", even a year ago I couldn't fully explain what it meant to be Carbon Neutral. My friend Arch sent me an email telling me how he was offsetting his carbon emissions through a company called TerraPass. Then I started seeing it pop up in the cycling community with the advertisements for Carbon Neutral events, then this year the buzz around the Tour (besides the doping allegations) was how the entire Discovery team was carbon neutral.

So, as any curious person would do I began researching this whole industry of carbon trading. I had already heard of carbon trading as a standard practice within the manufacturing industries. All companies regulated by the EPA are granted a certain weight, in tons (2,000 lbs.!) of carbon emissions, if a company does not emit (pollute that is) all of their alloted carbon, they can sell or trade their credits to other companies. There's actually a Carbon trading stock market, the Chicago Carbon Exchange. But I had never really heard of this phenomenon in the consumer market until that email.

And to date what have I found? That for the most part, I think we're looking at the next Enron scandal quite frankly. The theory is sound, but as always in what is a largely unregulated market , the practice is very, very suspect (remember the energy trading? now we're just talking carbon molecules instead of electrons). So basically it works like this, I go to a company like TerraPass or and calculate my estimated carbon footprint or a subset of it comprised of my car, my home and if I travel alot, my flying. Based on my calculated carbon emissions, I can pay to have those emissions offset. The company which I've just handed over upwards of several hundred dollars a year is suppose to take that money and use it to fund programs that basically do one of two things, the first is to implement projects aimed at directly reducing the level of carbon in the atmosphere, such as planting trees or seeding the oceans with iron to draw phytoplankton to the surface so they will pull carbon from the air. Hmm, sounds like the only benefactor there might be the whales. The second way to help reduce emissions is to fund renewable energy projects such as solar panels or wind turbines. Ok, sounds good although I have this long standing issue with the term "renewable energy" altogether. There really is no such thing as renewable energy people, there is sustainable energy but once a electron molecule is consumed to power something, it's gone, it doesn't go back in to the wind or back to the sun on some secret space ship housed at a ranch in Crawford, Texas.

So this is where the whole deal gets hairy, no one can actually calculate the true offset of carbon emissions by any of these projects that your money is going to! The EPA (albeit run by a Bush crony from the chemical industry) admits they cannot tell you how much carbon is offset by planting a tree. What species of tree, how large is it, where was it planted? It all factors in, especially if it was ever planted at all. Remember, this is an unregulated industry, your money doesn't have to actually be going towards any of these projects, at least ones that have a sound scientific basis, remember the phytoplankton? In the last 10 years we've had the .com bubble, Enron and now the housing market collapse, next is this dark and mysterious world of carbon trading. America is now the land of the get rich quick, everyone is looking for the next bubble to ride and why not carbon? You can't even see it.

So is going Carbon Neutral worth it if you really want help save the planet? Probably not. Your money is better spent on projects that will directly reduce your carbon footprint such as updating your appliances, putting in energy efficient windows and light bulbs and not driving the three miles to work in your gas guzzling SUV. About the only thing carbon neutral is cleaning up is your conscience until someone can quantify the effects of this industry on reducing pollution.

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