Friday, February 15, 2008


A few months ago I was having a drink with an old friend and he was talking about how he and his family are carbon neutral. I am not honestly sure if he was being serious or not (we had more then a few pints), he could just as easily been mocking the entire exercise but it got me thinking. Being carbon neutral seems to be a buzzword lots of people throw around right now, especially to display their 'green cred'. Just as a gangster flashes hand signs, guns and bling we show off our compost heaps, organic gardens and CFC lights and expect to somehow be absolved for maintaining a lifestyle that is still clearly unsustainable if lived by any more then the tiniest percentage of the worlds population.

I am not here to discuss the pros or cons (and obvious Western hypocrisy) regarding the environmental impact of phenominal growth in Asia and India and the billions of additional humans who will soon be living in larger homes, driving cars, and eating a diet rich in processed grains and meats. I'm going to limit this little discussion to the concept of being 'Carbon Neutral'.

The first thing you are supposed to do is calculate your footprint. There are dozens of free 'carbon calculators' online. You can start with this one hosted by British Petroleum, which is customizable for pretty much anywhere (many I've found are US only).

Based on their calculations my household uses roughly 18 tonnes of carbon per year. This is well above the Canadian average of 11 tonnes, despite our household energy saving, composting and recycling habits. Ground travel actually represents 75% of our footprint and is mostly due to my commuting to and from work.

Lets assume then you want to brag at a coctail party that you are carbon neutral. Once you have worked out your CO2 usage the next step would be to purchase what are called carbon 'offsets' or 'credits'. There are literally dozens of websites where you can purchase these credits. The concept is pretty simple. These organizations use your money to do something 'green' that will even out your carbon usage. Your money funds things like energy projects, reforestation campaigns, etc.

This is nothing more then branding. You have been able to donate to organizations like The Nature Conservancy or The Sierra Club and dozens of others for years. Instead of making a contribution to an eco-charity because it is the right thing to do we are now being sold the concept of buying credits. This is truly brilliant marketing. To make matters worse, some of the organizations selling these credits appear to have just come out of the woodwork and could be unethical. For a list of reputable vendors check out the David Suzuki Foundation site.

One of the larger sites is CarbonFund, where you can purchase credits for $5.50 per tonne. So for a mere $99 per year I can be carbon neutral. Their site claims that CarbonFund projects that would be supported by my $99 include wind and solar power initiatives and various reforestation campaigns all over the world.

Now you can call me crazy (many people have) for thinking this is stupid, but I just can't get past the notion that I would be better off if I took that $99 and bought my own damn solar panel (after saving up for a few years). I could easily just budget an extra $99 for landscaping next spring, perhaps planting a couple new trees each year.

In the end this is all about branding your charitable donations, and has nothing to do with carbon neutrality. I'm not against the idea, the notion that you can calculate a fair contribution based on a simple formula like yearly CO2 ommissions is a good concept. Lets just be honest with ourselves about it. Personally, I'm budgeting an extra $99/year on landscaping.

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Russell said...

You're not crazy; I just think you're like a lot of people who find it hard to believe that reducing carbon emissions costs as little as it does. But when you stop and think, it's actually not that unbelievable. Producing all the electricity for your house with coal isn't that expensive, is it? Well producing it with wind power is just a little bit more expensive. Planting trees doesn't cost that much either - especially when you do it like we do, on a huge scale.
- Russell

Ca1v1n said...

Thanks for the comment Russell. I want to stress I really do think the use of CO2 calculators and carbon credits is a great way for an individual to determine a fair size for any charitable donations to green causes they may want to make.

xoggoth said...

My idea is that science should develop a symbiotic green algae that lives in our skins and absorbs some of the CO2 we breath out.

They should also develop an injectable liquidiser that would allow fat people to plug themselves into their cars and supply some of the fuel, this would also tackle the obesity problem.