11/26/07

You buy 16 tons and what do you get?

When an event like the Oscars declares itself "carbon neutral" does that mean the lights and cameras are powered by renewable energy and the nominees arrive via fuel-cell buses? Not exactly... The "carbon neutral" label typically signals the purchase of "carbon offsets" that represent a reduction in carbon output from other entities. In other words, the event itself really hasn't changed.

Search the web for "carbon neutral" and you'll find to a bevy of outfits eager to facilitate these transactions while pocketing a little something for their effort. Think tree huggers with MBAs.

There's something not-quite-right about such a market, regardless of its good intentions. For instance, Business Week described the practice of selling offsets from projects that would have happened without additional contributions in its March 26, 2007 article, Another Inconvenient Truth. Such a practice hardly seems efficient.


Many outfits in this new industry bundle offsets, combining the carbon-savings from multiple projects into a single fund, making it impossible for contributors to know exactly where their cash ends up. It's also difficult to discern exactly how much of an individual's contribution is applied to carbon-reducing projects and how much remains with the broker. These transactions/contributions should be more transparent, welcoming scrutiny and inspiring trust, such as Kiva's approach to micro-loans.

I also wish these outfits would drop the "neutral" label. As a group, neutral is not the gear we're looking for. At this point, a bit of stunt driving is called for. Let's pull the emergency brake and 180 in the opposite direction in our electric powered whip. Validating neutrality at this stage contributes to a "good-enough" mentality that strengthens resistance to meaningful change.

Offset prices currently run $5 to $10 per metric ton of CO2. It sounds like a bargain, but I'd resist for now.

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