Taking global warming personally
Monday, December 11, 2006
By Joe Nation
In November, 5,000 scientists, delegates, and observers converged on Nairobi for the U.N. Conference on Climate Change. Virtually all of them flew there, and in doing so, they added nearly 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) to our atmosphere. (As a point of reference, the average California driver emits about six tons of CO2every year.)
Because the conference had limited success, some argue that it did more harm than good. That is doubtful. As a participant, I know that significant progress was made by many states (like California) and other sub-national regions, like South Australia, the Basque region, and New South Wales. Climate change is a long-term challenge, and solving it won’t occur overnight.
One of the first principles of good climate change policy is to reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions. Businesses can add solar panels and energy-saving production technologies, homeowners can add energy efficient windows and appliances), and drivers can purchase more fuel-efficient vehicles (e.g., trading in that Expedition for an Escape hybrid). Each of these behavioral changes cuts fuel consumption, but most don’t reduce emissions to zero.
There are limits in our modern world to emission reductions. Businesses still need energy to produce goods and services. Most homeowners and renters are not going to stop cooling and heating their homes and apartments, and in California, we certainly won’t stop driving.
But as we minimize our individual emissions, we also need to find creative solutions to further reduce total global emissions. Many businesses and individuals are now beginning to take steps to reduce emissions from others. Commonly called “offsets,” these reductions are occurring in a young, unregulated, and expanding voluntary carbon market. For those cases where we can’t reduce our own greenhouse gas emissions to zero, offsets allow us to reduce total emissions by reducing someone else’s emissions. In some cases, we can become “carbon neutral,” i.e., net carbon emissions are zero.
Here’s how a typical airline offset works. Passengers locate a company that specializes in emissions offsets. (Google “offset carbon emissions” to see how this field is growing.) These companies will then calculate emissions based on total travel. For example, my share of the flight to Nairobi (20,000 miles) for the U.N. Conference required about 400 gallons of aviation fuel, and emitted roughly 7,500 pounds of CO2.
Based on those CO2 emissions, the offsetting company finds and funds a project somewhere in the world that reduces CO2by the same amount as your flight adds. (In reality, of course, the offsetting company invests in large-scale projects and apportions them among individual passengers.) Typical projects include methane capture, re-forestation, wind and other power that replaces fossil fuels, and so forth.
Offsets are very affordable compared with our other habits. The offsets for my plane trip to Nairobi costs only $30 (about 2 percent of the $1400 airfare). Bottom line: many of us may spend more on gourmet coffee and gym memberships than what it costs to fully offset our carbon-rich lifestyles.
As concern about climate change grows, the demand for offsets is increasing. For example, American Express became a “carbon neutral” company more than a year ago. And more companies are offering customers the opportunity to use offsets to become carbon neutral. Recently, PG&E received approval from the Public Utilities Commission to offer a voluntary check-off so customers can offset their electricity and natural gas emissions.
There are challenges to the practice of offsetting. Is the offsetting firm reputable? Or a rip-off? Did the offset produce real emission reductions that would not have been reduced otherwise? Is the reduction in emissions verifiable? (I.e., can we be certain that the reduction has actually occurred and not, for example, been sold to multiple buyers?) Is the emission reduction permanent? Re-forestation offsets may be very temporary if the forest is not properly managed. These are but a few of the challenges.
It is critical that we meet these challenges or the offset concept will not survive. A few non-profit and quasi-governmental entities are developing a “voluntary carbon standard” that will serve as the equivalent of the once-ubiquitous Good Housekeeping seal of approval for offsets. Once we provide this confidence to consumers, the voluntary market should flourish.
Next November, 5,000 individuals will travel to Bali for the next U.N. Conference on Climate Change. Perhaps some will choose not to go, reducing their individual emissions. But most will likely make the trek again. Hopefully, each individual will reduce total emissions by offsetting the trip.
Goals for the new year for every Californian should include reducing greenhouse gas emissions significantly. And in those cases where significant reductions aren’t possible, Californians should offset their emissions and strive to become carbon neutral. Whether we successfully employ offsets may provide the best indication of how creative we will be in meeting the challenge of climate change.
Joe Nation, a former Assembly member from Marin, teaches microeconomics and climate change at the University of San Francisco.