Greenhouse gas emissions are associated with virtually every form of industrial activity in the developed world, from generating electricity to manufacturing, from driving to flying, from heating your house to mowing your lawn.
Such gases, particularly carbon dioxide and methane, are thought by some to be associated with rising global temperatures and climate change, and thus, perhaps inspired by Al Gore’s documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” many individuals and businesses have sought to reduce their “carbon footprints.”
But — and here’s another inconvenient truth — it’s not easy to do, for either businesses or individuals.
As an individual, you can get rid of that big honkin’ SUV and buy a Prius, or buy a sweater, a la Jimmy Carter, and turn down the heat. In the summer, you can buy a few fans and turn off the A/C or tear up the lawn and xeriscape — and garage sale the lawn mower.
You also can invest in energy-efficient appliances, or unplug your computer and TV when they’re not in use, because such “zombie” devices suck up electricity even when they’re turned off. And you can get rid of your incandescent light bulbs in favor of compact fluorescents.
Of course, you’ll have to write some big checks for the dubious privilege of making your life less convenient and less comfortable, but think of the inner satisfaction that comes with doing your part to combat the scourge of GHGs!
And what about your business? If you’re a rational businessperson, you’ve already done everything you can to reduce utility costs, since such reductions go right to your bottom line. And you can’t very well close your doors just to help save the planet, can you?
Fear not! There may be a way that individuals and companies alike can go green without changing a thing, just by writing a modest check. For a fee, there are dozens of companies that will sell you “carbon offsets,” which will enable you to offset your emissions by paying for projects that will absorb as much atmospheric carbon as you emit.
The companies do this in a variety of ways. Some plant forests; some burn methane generated from landfills; some pay for solar electric generating projects — and all you have to do is write a check.
According to Clean Air-Cool Planet’s “Retail Guide to Carbon Offset Providers,” an average residence accounts for 21 tons of annual GHG emissions. High-quality offsets cost as little as $8 per ton, so pay an offset provider $160 and turn up the now guilt-free heat.
But there’s one problem. There’s usually no way to determine whether your carbon offset purchases are actually being used as intended. And even if they are, they may not perform as advertised.
Did your offset help pay for a forestry project in Uganda, for example? Unless you’re prepared to go visit the forest 20 years hence, you’ll never know. As Mark Trexler, president of Trexler Climate & Energy Services in Portland, Ore., the firm commissioned to write Clean Air-Cool Planet’s guide to carbon offsets, said recently, “The carbon market is particularly difficult because of that issue. You’re dealing with stuff in the future in many cases that hasn’t happened yet.”
Interestingly, even The Vatican is buying carbon offsets. According to Monday’s New York Times, the Holy See will pay for the re-forestation of a small island in Hungary’s Tisza River to offset its carbon emissions.
Clearly, the Vatican has both the means and the expertise to assess the merit of the purchased offsets, and the ability to periodically inspect the project.
Unhappily, that’s simply not the case for most of us.
Carbon offsets seem, in our view, to function not as mechanisms for reducing GHGs, but as a sop to the conscience of those who think green, but are unwilling to act green. They are comparable to the Papal Indulgences of past centuries, which literally enabled sinners to buy themselves out of sin — a practice which the Catholic Church abandoned in 1567.
Those who contemplate the purchases of offsets ought to proceed with caution. Are you really helping the environment or are you simply throwing money away?
And for those of us who want to take meaningful action to combat GHGs, buying a dozen compact fluorescents beats planting a dozen imaginary forests — and maybe you really don’t need that SUV after all.