Friday, June 12, 2009

Following the Trail of Carbon Footprints

Carbon footprint.

Carbon offsets.

Green houses.

Green jobs.

Energy efficiency.

Global health.

If you haven’t had at least one of these phrases thrown at you – by television commentators, op-ed and editorial writers, or by someone with whom you’ve been having a conversation – during the past week, then you are one of the fortunate ones who must be isolated from the rest of civilization. (Side bar: If you are, please let me know how to get there so that my family and I can escape the insanity that resides inside the Beltway.) The cap-and-trade side of things has certainly been a big issue for my place of employment, and I can tell you that after having read all 900-plus pages of the Waxman-Markey bill (H.R. 2454 for all of you policy wonks out there), there’s some scary stuff on the horizon – and I hope folks take the time to educate themselves before it’s too late.

I finally caved and took some time today to use one of the multiple on-line tools to determine the level of environmental destruction that my family is thrusting upon the earth (or at least our little portion of Northern Virginia). The first one ( calculated, after I answered a series of questions on energy usage and recycling and shopping habits, that we are responsible for 6.44 tons of CO2 emissions per year. Based on the cool little “footprint” graph on the results page, that’s less than half of the national average and more than twice the world target.

Moving on, I tried a second calculator developed by the Nature Conservancy ( and after answering very similar questions was told that we are responsible for 55 tons of emissions per year.

Say what? Well, which is it? My habits didn’t change between the first and second calculator (unless my wife burned down the George Washington National Forest during those four minutes), and yet the Conservancy holds us accountable for 49 more tons of emissions each year. This itself presents the first problem: how, if the government is going to try and restrict (sorry; “cap” – there you go, Chairman Waxman), will they calculate who is responsible for what? I can honestly say I don’t have much confidence at all in the scientific data that will be used o the methodology for gathering this information – particularly if an organization like the Nature Conservancy is going to blame me for nearly 400 percent more emissions than your average group.

Next, I was given the option of offsetting the natural disaster that my wife and kids and I have unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Yes, long before industry will be required to do so through auction, I can purchase my very own offset credits. Here are samples of what I can spend (just for my 6.44 tons; I didn’t bother looking for the 55 tons):

Certified Emission Reduction - fully verified by Kyoto/United Nations standards and used to support Clean Development Mechanism projects. Cost: $174.39

Clean Energy Portfolio – supports clean energy generation projects around the world. Cost: $90.20

Americas Portfolio – supports reforestation projects in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico. Cost: $95.67

Reforestation in Kenya – supports “the planting of broad leaved trees in the Great Rift Valley” (sounds glamorous). Cost: $89.15 (for seven trees)

UK Tree Planting – does just what it says, although you get to pick the region of the UK that you’d like to reforest. Cost: $145.61 (for seven trees)

This brings up question two: who’s administering this money, and what guarantee is it that in our effort to mitigate our personal environmental destruction this money will actually even go to whom and what they claim it will? Here’s an interesting quote from Steve Milloy in Green Hell:

The CO2 offset marketplace is pretty shady. According to an August 2008 report by the General Accounting Office, carbon offsets have no uniform quality assurance mechanisms or standards of verification and monitoring. “Participants in the offset market face challenges ensuring credibility of offsets,” the GAO concluded. In other words, buyers have little idea whether the offsets they buy actually reduce CO2 emissions.

Milloy continues, “Former Clinton administration official Joseph Romm bluntly summed up the situation, writing that ‘the vast majority of offsets are, at some level, just rip-offsets.’”

So to review: we need to adjust our carbon footprint, but no one can accurately calculate our footprint; we need to buy personal offsets to mitigate our footprint, but no one can assure us the money is going to where it is intended – or how much of it is actually going anywhere other than the pockets of those administering the program.

Are the sorts of changes we would need to make even feasible? Milloy says, “Based on my carbon footprint profile, to meet this goal I’d have to driving, flying, using electricity, and heating and cooling my home.” All cases may not be as extreme, but how much will you have to scale back your life and habits to compensate?

Moreover, are you willing to do it?


  1. Offsets are a total misnomer. For those not involving carbon sinks (ie-forestation), you're simply adding renewable electricity to the grid along with what you've used, so there is no true "offset". As far as planting trees, you hit on a very valid point - exactly how much carbon does a new tree eat up?

    Onto cap and trade legislation, certainly very scary to think about. However, many people overlook that essentially Congress and the Administration are using a Stick and bigger stick approach. While the changes from the Waxman legislation are daunting and will have lasting economic consequences, the EPA has already begun the process of declaring endangerment from CO2, starting the domnioes on regulating all CO2 emitters. So the choices are a Waxman legislative stick or the bigger stick of EPA compliance and enforcement.

  2. Whilst a Cap and Trade in theory does seem like a step forward I fear will be two steps back. One by creating a government body to police the system where no doubt the 2 party system of Congress will hinder progress by petty politcal bickering. Two by beating emmiters down with a carbon tax to encourage reductions, which as history shows us a unjust punitive tax does little to stem a product but only induce resentment.

    I would suggest putting a super tax on corporation's net profits before CEO bonus payments and stock holder dividends, for the corporations that have profitted the most off CO2 emmissions and those which have caused enviromental damage. The funds would be pooled as a development fund to restore enviromental damage (something which the federal goverment usually has to pick up the tab for at tax payers expense) and for publicy owned renwable energy facilities.

    Without just bashing the corporations, tax breaks should be offered to citizens and corporations for sustainable projects and reduction in consumption.

    Time will tell as usual but on this issue, can we afford it??