Sunday, July 8, 2007

Carbon Indulgences (And Why I'm Removing My NativeEnergy Badge)

For some time now, small pockets of momentum (and hype) have accumulated around companies like TerraPass and NativeEnergy. But it’s time we question the premise behind these programs.

What companies like TerraPass and NativeEnergy do is enable a climate-concerned consumer to “offset” their carbon emissions by funding alternative energy projects. So if you use 4000KW / year of electricity, you can “offset” that by paying to add 4000KW of alternative energy derived electricity back to the grid.

But when you think about it, these programs sound incredibly like the church selling indulgences back in the 1500s. Sin all you want, “offset” your sins by donating to the Church, and you still get a one-way ticket to Heaven. Thomas Friedman of the NYTimes hits on a similar idea in his column, Live Bad, Go Green.

In a thought provoking post, my colleague Justin Label sheds more light on this moral loophole: By putting a price on carbon emissions, consumers who once felt an ethical obligation to cut emissions might feel less of that obligation when they can pay to undo their carbon footprint.

Consequently these programs shift the emphasis away from changing our behavior (e.g., buying a Prius) to instead paying to “make it all better” (e.g., offsetting my Hummer’s omissions). A Carbon Indulgence by any other name.

Although I like the original intention of these programs, I can’t in good conscience keep the NativeEnergy badge on my blog anymore. Dialogue around our Carbon Footprints should be more about making us (and the government) change our behavior (by making us feel damn guilty about our footprints), than about paying to offset them.

8 comments:

Scott Yates said...

At least with indulgences, the money went to build the Sistene Chapel, and fund other great artists. The carbon indulgences money goes only to flim flam men and hustlers.

Matt said...

This is currently a huge hot topic currently in the green nerd world. I don't think carbon offsetting is itself a bad thing.

Yes you are right; the first step in becoming serious about your carbon footprint is to reduce. After you have reduced all you can (CFLs, turning your computer off, small car, etc) you are still producing some amount carbon. Then offsetting is probably the next logical step.

I think offsetting might not be a bad first step, something is better then nothing! With the right offset project, there can be a lot of benefits. It can also start the person down the right path, they are at least thinking about their carbon footprint enough to offset it.

My honest opinion is the H3 Hummer driver doesn’t think about their carbon production enough to be involved in offsetting. I also think that if you are serious about your carbon footprint the allure of the carbon offset will not be strong enough to make you by an H3.

DISCLAIMER: I have done some offsetting in the past, and I have/am involved with an organization is involved in carbon offsetting.

evbart said...

Amen Sister!

Conservation and Reduction would be preferable, but with our pension for consuming, some well marketed offsets might be the best we can hope for.

Great Post!

Rob said...

I actually think that putting a price on it is a good thing because it could start leading us down the road to a CO2 trading system. I interned for an electrical company lobbyist in the summer of 89 and have been confused ever since why this hasn't been exploited more. Sure, there are stumbling blocks to getting it going but I think (hope?) that market forces would quickly iron it out. I'd love to see the price of a "unit" of carbon be quoted during the evening news along with a barrel of oil and the NYSE and NASDAQ close - it would bring that much more focus to it for everyone.

By the way, you should pick up the current issue of TimeOut New York, it has a section that gives you a better idea of how much you are doing to limit your carbon footprint just by just living in NYC - I'm thinking about taking advantage of one of their ideas and by my ConEd energy from a wind source.

r.

Gautam said...

Hi Sarah,
I have to disagree with this idea quite strongly. The environmental movement shouldn't be about "changing our behavior" (although it too often is). It should be about _solving environmental problems_. If it's about "changing our behavior" then the suspicion in many people's minds is that it's more about allowing people to parade their virtue and proclaim their enlightenment than actually helping the environment. Treating global warming like what it is (an economic problem) lends itself to economic solutions - ones that might actually do the most good for the least harm. Too much environmentalism seems to be an excuse for the rich and well-connected to tell the less rich and powerful what they should be doing. It's a status symbol, not a concern about the environment. Let's forget about "changing behavior" - hairshirt environmentalism only helps the people interested in proclaiming that they wear hair shirts (while flying to concerts in their private jets). Environmentalists should be concerned about helping the environment, whatever the best way to do it is.

Sarah Tavel said...

Wow. Great comments.

I'm going to tackle Gautam's comment first. When I read it, my first reaction was "Yes - you're so right." The comment I made in my post about changing our behavior out of guilt was a throw away I shouldn't have done. But as I thought about it, I am going to have to partially disagree.

While I think there absolutely is something to Gautam's point, by the same token, changing our behavior absolutely has to be part of the solution. The more important question then becomes what the motivation is behind this. For example, do we change our purchasing decisions (e.g., buying CFL bulbs) because of guilt, or because your electricity bills will be lower?

And to this question, I'll agree with Gautam's point: it should be (and will need to be) economic. That said, this does not mean heightened awareness for the environmental ramifications of our choices is bad.

Celeste LeCompte said...

Hey Sarah,

Matt's definitely right that this is a hot topic.

In my experience -- you're right that carbon offsets are a sketchy proposition. But I don't agree that means you should give them up, completely. I mean, at the very they cost you something, which creates a personal financial incentive to reduce your carbon consumption, which is currently "free" (except as you pay for gas in your car, pay your power bill, etc.).

One suggestion I'll make is that you should consider purchasing your offsets from a Chicago Climate Exchange-affiliated source that retires the carbon credits purchased. That way, you can be sure about the projects (they're all verified for carbon-reduction value) and, by working with a company that retires the credits from the market, you're helping bring up the price of remaining credits. Which creates a stronger market incentive for companies to reduce their carbon usage. LiveNeutral is one such firm, but I'm not specifically recommending them. You can dig around yourself to find others, I suspect.

Sarah Tavel said...

Celeste - Thanks so much for the comment, and it's great to hear from you. :)

The LiveNeutral-esque idea is interesting, and I like the idea of a not-for-profit being behind this kind of a program. I will look into it. xoxo