Can you buy a greener conscience?


Los Angeles Times – September 2, 2007

P.T. Barnum supposedly said that there was a sucker born every minute. Sometimes, when I read about carbon credits, I am not sure who the sucker is – the person buying, the person selling, or the general public for thinking it is helping!

I really don’t like carbon credit schemes.  I have written about them multiple times and most of what I read simply doesn’t make sense and is closer to scam than it is to solution.

In order for credits to be feasible and to be more than a “feel good” gesture, we need solid accounting, accountability, and penalties. We have none of that now and this article makes this painfully clear. We cannot allow credits to be used for minor contributions to a project. The credit must go to the cost of reducing the greenhouse gas. 

For instance, if I give a project $2,000 for the installation of geothermal energy at my local courthouse but it costs $1,000,000 to put the system in and an additional $1,000,000 to operate and maintain it over its 25 year life then I should only receive 0.1% of the carbon credits. If that system saves 5 tons of carbon dioxide then my credit should only be 10 pounds and that credit should be spread out over 25 years.

If it is true that former Vice President Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” spent less than $500 in carbon credits to become “carbon neutral” than he should join the ranks of P.T. Barnum because he has made “suckers” out of a lot of people!  In order to become “carbon neutral” Mr. Gore should add up all of the energy that was used, figure out what the carbon footprint is of that energy and then buy something that is really useful like perhaps the funding of converting the city taxis of a given city to hydrogen (or biofuel, ethanol, etc.) or providing “green” energy to a household for a certain number of months.

The math on Mr. Gore’s website simply doesn’t make sense.  According to his calculator, 1 gallon of gasoline generates 19.6 pounds of CO2.  To make it easy, lets use 20 pounds. That would mean that his 41.4 tons of CO2 is equivalent to burning about 4,000 gallons of gasoline. In order to be carbon neutral, Mr. Gore must make an investment that replaces 4,000 gallons of gasoline. He could also chose to supply all of the energy to an average household of 4 for about 2.3  years (if his energy source was 100% carbon free).  Since the average household spends about $2,100 per year that would set him back about $4,800 or 10 times as much as he spent.

As I said above, I have written about this subject often in the past. You can read some of my entries here:
How Carbon Trading Works
Green energy hot, price rising
Academic challenges global warming theory
Are we falling for the great green con?
Administration pushes market-based plan for global warming
Industry caught in carbon ?smokescreen?
The Carbon Folly

The Oscar-winning film “An Inconvenient Truth” touted itself as the world’s first carbon-neutral documentary. The producers said that every ounce of carbon emitted during production — from jet travel, electricity for filming and gasoline for cars and trucks — was counterbalanced by reducing emissions somewhere else in the world.

Co-producer Lesley Chilcott used an online calculator to estimate that shooting the film used 41.4 tons of carbon dioxide and paid a middleman, a company called Native Energy, $12 a ton, or $496.80, to broker a deal to cut greenhouse gases elsewhere.

It was a ridiculously good deal with one problem: So far, it has not led to any additional emissions reductions.

As it turned out, both projects had already been designed and financed, and the contributions from Native Energy covered only a minor fraction of their costs. “If you really believe you’re carbon neutral, you’re kidding yourself,” said Gregg Marland, a fossil-fuel pollution expert at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee who has been watching the evolution of the new carbon markets. “You can’t get out of it that easily.”

The companies take millions of dollars collected from their customers and funnel them into carbon-cutting projects, such as tree farms in Ecuador, windmills in Minnesota and no-till fields in Iowa.

But the industry is clouded by an approach to carbon accounting that makes it easy to claim reductions that didn’t occur. Many projects that have received money from offset companies would have reduced emissions by the same amount anyway.

Nothing came of his discussions with the company until construction started on the massive tank for heating manure. He gladly signed a contract to sell Native Energy 29,000 tons in carbon dioxide reductions — the company’s estimate of how much greenhouse gas the digester will keep out of the atmosphere over the next 20 years. “There wasn’t a lot of negotiation,” said Van Gilder, who was happy to accept whatever the company was offering.

Justin Van Gilder said the money had nothing to do with the family’s decision to build its methane plant. “It was a free bonus,” he said. “We still don’t understand it all,” Connie Van Gilder said. “It’s hard for us to fathom, to see what it is doing.”

The cooperative sold 25 years of carbon dioxide reductions to Native Energy for $36,000 — roughly $4 a ton. Native Energy had contributed just over 1% of the total cost of the project yet claimed 100% of its carbon reductions. “If you look at the costs of these projects, it’s a tiny, tiny fraction,” said cooperative president Meera Kohler. The payment did “not determine whether those blades turn or not.”

“These offsets are not addressing the problem that must be addressed now,” said James Hansen, NASA’s top climate researcher. “If we just fool around with marginal things, we will be up a creek without a paddle in the rather near future.”

This article is quite long and I can’t do it justice here or get into all of the details it discusses.  Please read the whole article here.

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4 thoughts on “Can you buy a greener conscience?”

  1. Drew Neisser says:

    I’m not surprised that carbon credits are more smoke than substance at this point. Marketers all over the world are anxious to jump on the green bandwagon and carbon credits seem like an easy option since they don’t involve any behavioral change. I tend to be a little more forgiving of marketers who take this approach because I firmly believe all the GREEN noise will ultimately inspire genuine behavioral change by businesses, governments and consumers. Look at the Japanese “Cool Biz” initiative which has companies turning up their thermostats to 82 degrees (see cover story of today’s Wall St. Journal.) I believe that kind of thing would never happen if there wasn’t a cacophony of green noise in the marketplace. So sometimes a little voodoo green can lead to the real thing.

  2. Peter Ravenscroft says:

    Buying a clear conscience is an old game. The sale of indulgences sparked the Reformation, my brother, a Parks Ranger here in Oz, noted one day. Let’s hope this one will be more peaceful.

  3. admin says:

    Peter – that is an interesting analogy. I have heard of some people say that if global warming persists then the dark ages would reappear – and then we can sell indulgences again!

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