Monday, May 29, 2006

 

Personal Carbon Neutrality: Indulgences and Snake Oil?

[Seems not . . . that is, the climate science types at RealClimate.org think that buying credits to offset your own CO2 emissions is valuable, though credits for reforestation are questioned. Go to the complete story to read the comments, including one by the CEO at Terrapass.com.]

Buying a stairway to heaven?

Just in the last year or so, a new type of scheme for reducing personal carbon emissions has appeared, the remarkably painless purchasing of “carbon offsets.” Carbonfund.org claims to neutralize a person’s CO2 footprint on the Earth for the low, low price of $99 per year, plus if you act now they will throw in an extra 5 tons for free! And you get a pen! Prices listed here range from $5-30 per ton of CO2 from a variety of similar organizations around the world. The average U.S. citizen is responsible for about 24 tons of CO2 release per year.

Compliance with Kyoto, a mere 5% reduction in carbon emissions, was forecast by Nordhaus [2001] to cost a few percent of GDP globally. The cost to stop emission completely and immediately may not even be calculable. Carbonfund.org promises zero net emissions, for a fraction of 1% of the average U.S. income. Can this possibly be real, or are we talking indulgences and snake oil?

. . .

The only piece of this picture that I don’t personally believe is carbon credits for land-use changes, reforestation. This was a U.S. idea in the Kyoto negotiations, back in the day when we were still pissing in the tent from the inside. It is true that forests hold more carbon per square meter than bare land does. However, estimating the exact amount of carbon in a forest is not so easy, because most of the carbon is in the soil, where its concentration is variable and laborious to measure. Could a forest that was cut and burned last year be claimed to be a carbon sink this year, as the forest grows back? What if the forest is cut again next year, will the carbon credits issued this year be chased down and revoked? To its credit, Carbonfund.org is quite up front about these sorts of concerns, and gives donors the option to invest their money in ways that are more transparent.

. . .

Carbon offsets are beneficial in the meantime, however, because they do cut carbon emissions, and the money stimulates development of alternative energy technologies. The bottom line is, despite my deep initial skepticism, I now see how carbon offsets could actually work as advertised, enabling an individual to live a carbon-neutral life, even in the United States. This is a terrific idea. Sign me up!


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