Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Truthiness Of Carbon Neutrality

Carbon Neutral (pronounced Kahr-buh,n Noo-truh,l) adjective Definition: the maintenance of a balance between producing and using carbon, esp. the global warming-inducing emission of carbon-dioxide by growing plants or planting trees both for fuel and carbon-capture to offset emissions from non-sustainable energy use

The web’s wires have been abuzz these last months with so much ‘Carbon Neutral’ news that the New Oxford American Dictionary recently proclaimed it Word Of The Year for 2006, unlike Merriam Webster’s which seemed a whole year late in making Steven Colbert’s ‘Truthiness" it’s choice. ("Besides, ‘Carbon Neutral’ is two words!" the snippish late night faux-conservative faux-talkshow faux-host can be heard to snipe.) But a day doesn’t go by without some company or celebrity jumping on the CN bandwagon. Exhibit A, this headline today from the Computer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

"Dell calls on customers to contribute to carbon-neutral computing". Dell announces it will plant sufficient trees to absorb all the atmospheric carbon dioxide generated by power plants producing the electricity used to drive its computers for a three-year period. Dubbed Plant a Tree for Me, Dell’s notebook and desktop buyers will be given the chance to donate $2 or $6, respectively, to fund Dell's project. Or rather, Dell will pass the money on to non-profit organizations that will handle the planting, in sustainably managed forests. Dell doesn't say whether it will be donating any money of its own and absent from its list of machines are servers, which consume more energy and tend to be powered up for longer.

Items like this show that it's getting harder to distinguish the sheep from the shorn. For example, Exhibit B, right below the same google news pages as Dell’s self-serving declaration is "The Helium Report" offering a chart that touts private jet travel as a comparably inexpensive way to fly (!!!)… from the point of view of carbon neutrality. "We were surprised to find it costs less than 1% of the flying cost per hour to fly carbon neutral…We reviewed ten popular jets in four categories and found the cost to fly carbon neutral ranges from $7 to $60 an hour — a minuscule amount when flying private costs $2,000 to $13,000 an hour. For less than $10,000, you can offset 200 hours in a Falcon 2000, a 10-seat jet that costs more than $25 million."

This on a site that appears to be largely sponsored by TerraPass, one of the largest firms engaged in selling carbon offsets.

More than just more hot air?

Do you really repair the damage caused by flying by paying a carbon offset company? Offsets are suddenly all the rage. This past Holiday Season friends boasted of giving their offspring a year’s worth of offsets, the perfect parental gift for progeny who have everything… except a planet to offer their own future progeny. For $99, offers a 'zero carbon' option, an offset not only for a year's worth of fossil fuel combustion but for all of the emissions associated with the production of 'everything we consume: clothes, food, electronics, your iPod, everything.'

The most obvious ethical problem is that any solution that when writ large, that is, when applied universally, would ruin the planet in an eyeblink needs to be approached with extreme caution. Money paid out for such schemes is blood money, balm for guilty consciences. Unfortunately simply planting trees won’t reclaim the irreplaceable fossil fuel spewed into the air on a private jet. Were all earth’s inhabitants to immediately adopt this tact there wouldn’t be space enough for all the trees needed to assuage the carbon damage. But that doesn’t mean carbon neutral efforts can't be part of the solution, one of the wedges in stabilizing our carbon dioxide emissions long-term.

However, the global market in personal, "voluntary" offsetting is exploding, expected to top over $500 million dollars the next three years. (The International Emissions Trading Association and World Bank estimate that the market for carbon credits, of which offsets are a part, is now worth more than $21.5 billion, according to a new study.) And many of these companies rely on assumptions based on "forest sequestration". It’s the easy and most attractive way to sell offsets. You’re "planting trees," you’re told. At best these efforts depend on the assumption that planting trees in an area previously without forest "locks up" carbon in the new trees grown there. In other words, it takes carbon out of the air and puts it into a plant. One criticism of "forest sequestration" is that carbon in a tree is not "stored safely". Trees burn up, forests die out due to insect infestation (the rock band Coldplay learnt this the hard way when most of the trees on a mango plantation they supported in India died), but new arguments have recently emerged that further question the value of tree planting.

Last month, two US-based ecologists claimed that most forests do not have any overall effect on global temperature. Except for a thin band around the equator, forests trap more heat than they help to get rid of by reducing CO². In fact, last year the WWF, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace issued a statement saying they do not support forestry projects to offset carbon emissions. This has led some offset firms to downplay the forestry side of their business. A major player, the Carbon Neutral Company, (there are more than 30 of these firms, some not-for profit, some not-not) changed its name from Future Forests to avoid the appearance of being a trees-only offsetter.

Nonetheless, "carbon neutral" efforts are still to be applauded. They not only raise consciousness about our individual "carbon footprints" they will inevitably be part of any carbon mitigation initiative. The issues, however, are complex, and pressing given the difficulty of calculating what really is an ‘offset’ in a rapidly warming world where ‘offset companies’ are entirely unregulated.

Readers piqued to examine this in more depth are invited to begin their journey with visits to the following online articles that contributed to this column:

A lot of hot air? By Dominic Murphy, The Guardian, Thursday January 11, 2007

Going carbon-neutral By Drake Bennett THE BOSTON GLOBE Sunday, December 24, 2006

And to follow up with perusals of Joel Makower’s piece Carbon Neutral Stabilization Wedges

And of “Do carbon offsets live up to their promise?”

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