Saturday, March 10, 2007

Built on Guilt - Carbon Offsets

Carbon offsets are making the rounds. The idea is to balance out the carbon generated by an electronic device by paying for an effort to reduce that carbon; the most common offset method is to plant trees, although you can buy credits through the Chicago Climate Exchange as well.Carbon offsetting is now a part of several green computing schemes. Dell has the Plant a Tree for Me, Via has the Clean Computing Initiative, Kudos IT Systems has something going, etc. Some vendors, such as Via, include the price of the offsetting in the product. Others, such as Dell , make the offsetting fee optional, but then use 100 percent of it to reduce the emissions.

There are a lot of issues here - the schemes are not regulated, the price and method of offsetting varies wildly from one offsetter to another, there is no agreement that offsetting even works. And since offsetting fees are essentially charitable donations, the model can be viewed as marketing ploy or (worse) a system to extract dollars from guilt-ridden consumers. This is similar to the indulgences of the 15th and 16th centuries, where the Dutch literally paid for their sins. Finally, the model encourages consumption, particularly for the rich who would rather pay a fee and slap a sticker on something than change their lifestyle.

The biggest point for me is that none of the schemes take into account the carbon effects of the materials that go into making the computer or chip, which is estimated to be up to 10 times the weight of the final product. This is far worse than cars and refrigerators, which only use one or two times their weight in raw materials. PC World is producing a machine that will in fact account for the manufacturing costs, which will supposedly be out in early Summer. I'm very interested in the price tag.

Any one of these issues gives me pause; taken together, they evoke a strange combination of confusion, anger, compassion, and weirdness. It's an odd feeling, like the one I had when I was asked to give for the Katrina victims or the 9/11 disaster. Pedantically, it just seems impossible that the carbon problem will be solved at $2 per laptop, and with the addition of for-profit intermediaries such as Terrapass, the situation is more confused; is my guilt being sold to the lowest bidder where they pocket the difference, or am I contributing to a valuable and worthwhile cause? If it's the former, and I think it is, I just don't care how many solar power plants they fund; having my feelings converted into a fiduciary instrument is just plain wrong, and having consumers foot the bill for every infrastructure crisis that comes along isn't right either.

2 comments:

Lara said...

I agree and disagree with you. Do carbon offsets really offset the carbon we use....no...but in my mind, that is not really the point.

Carbon offsets allow for a way for people who would not otherwise give to the alternative energy arena a way to easily do it.

Is it money to pay for guilt? Yes!! So what!!! Good!! If people want to assuage their guilt about something then it is their money - no one is holding a gun to their head to make them do it. Alternative energy needs all the support it can right now.

Should there be a standard? yes...planting trees is an offset I am not so interested in. I am sure that some of these offsetting companies are swindling people. There is a start to a standard. Go here to the bottom of this link
Gold Standard
. The lack of a standard just means that it is up to the consumer to research the people they are giving their money to.

The fact that companies are giving "marketing" dollars to carbon offsets then hurrah! Win Win as far as I am concerned. It does make people think about the fact that there is a cost to what they do?

Is it THE answer? No...Is it a start? Yes and I think it is a good place to jump off of. Nothing is perfect in this world run by we human beings.

The one sentence in your article that I absolutely HAVE to refute however is the sentence Finally, the model encourages consumption, particularly for the rich who would rather pay a fee and slap a sticker on something than change their lifestyle...I completely disagree with this statement. That is the same thing as saying that condoms promote sex. (and maybe you believe that too) but I cannot support that statement in the least. People are still going to fly as much as they do now...business trips are going to happen and that will NOT be affected by carbon offsets. Do you really think that people go through the thought process of..."Jeez - now I can take 5 more trips this year that I otherwise would not have made because I have paid for carbon offsets" No! People will do what they have done and would have done if we have carbon offsets or not - BUT - in carbon offsets perhaps a wind farm will gain some dollars they otherwise would not have.

We should not damn something because it is not the perfect answer. We should support a step in the right direction and perhaps work toward making it more of the answer.

Mark Ontkush said...

Hi Lara,

Thanks for posting. I agree people can do anything they want with their money, including being guilted out of it. That seems like a strange choice to me, and it's probably not a conscious one. "I'm being guilted out of my money again - great!"

"marketing" carbon is the right word, because that what it is - pure marketing. I don't want to put words in, but I don't agree that if people can sell you something, then they should be allowed to. It's just too easy to get away from the goal.

Do condoms promote sex? I don't know, they are a solution to not getting pregnant, and to that end, promoting sex promotes condom sales. Does promoting consumption encourage carbon offset sales? Probably.