How green can you be?

Working in the web industry, electricity is the cornerstone of everything we do. There is no physical alternative, no part of our job which is free of energy consumption. On our own computers, our offices and homes, our servers, we spend all our time pushing electrons around. But the availability of renewable energy sources is sadly limited, and so inevitably, some or all of what we do involves the consumption of non-renewable energy and the further production of greenhouse gases, contributing to the steady destruction of our environment.

Wouldn’t it be so convenient if there was an easy way to reduce our carbon footprint without having to change our patterns of consumption..?

Hmm.

Over the last few months I’ve become increasingly unsettled by the growth in prominence and respect for carbon-offsetting schemes. It seems like everyone and his dog is buying carbon credits, believing that by doing so they are helping the environment and reducing their carbon footprint.

Not so.

When large corporations peddle such stuff it doens’t surprise me; large corporations are like politicians — they say what people want to hear, whether or not they believe it, and whether or not it’s true. But when home-grown ventures like the Web Directions Conference start to trot this line, I can no longer keep my mouth shut.

I don’t believe that carbon offset schemes really help at all. In fact I believe they make things worse. By buying carbon credits you’re merely throwing money at a problem without having to really address it. Instead of thinking how can I reduce the amount of carbon I produce and thereby make a real difference, you simply say I’m buying carbon credits therefore I can produce as much as I like. The net effect could well be an increase in the overall amount of carbon that’s produced. Just like the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme, an idea that was intended to reduce carbon output but which has actually increased it, because it allows countries to buy and use credits for carbon that would otherwise not have been emitted at all.

From a recent Guardian article in the UK:

…even the most well-intentioned schemes suffer from basic weaknesses in the idea of carbon offsetting — an idea which flows not from environmentalists and climate scientists trying to design a way to reverse global warming but from politicians and business executives trying to meet the demands for action while preserving the commercial status quo. It fails on at least three essential points.

First, it requires an accurate measure of the emissions to be offset. That turns out to be riddled with uncertainty … Second, it requires an accurate measure of the carbon saved elsewhere. Most of the earliest offset projects involved planting trees, which naturally ingest carbon, a complex and unpredictable process which forbids accurate measurement … Finally, the very idea of offsetting relies on what is known as additionality — evidence that a carbon reduction would not have occurred in the natural order of commercial life.

Even if the schemes were 100% accurate and trustworthy, they would still be a fools’ paradise. We can’t offset all the carbon we produce, or even a small fraction of it. We just have to produce less; it’s not sexy, or easy, but it’s what we have to do.

Carbon offsets are a magic solution for the industrialised west to sing business as usual. And this is where the real damage is done — for as long as we refuse to grasp the reality of environmental destruction, the destruction will get worse. Carbon offsets are an imaginary commodity that allow us to continue polluting at will, and then assuage our guilt by buying absolution from the very people who sold us the cause of the destruction.

As environmental activist George Monbiot puts it:

By selling us a clean conscience, the offset companies are undermining the necessary political battle to tackle climate change at home. They are telling us that we don’t need to be citizens; we need only be better consumers.

If you really want to reduce the environmental footprint of your website, company or home, then renewable energy and greater efficiency will help. Buying carbon credits will not.

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  • ShayneTilley

    I think you’ve got some interesting points here but I’d like to offer some alternate thoughts…

    We shouldn’t be criticising companies for A putting this issue on the agenda and B doing what is in their means right now.

    Yes I’ll agree that carbon offsets are useless in isolation, but in conjunction with other initiatives has a very important role to play.

    Offsetting is something we can do right now. Poor environmental practices exist everywhere and I’m glad there are individuals and organisations willing to put their hand in their pocket to support these quick wins and set these bad practices right.

    It takes years to build a wind farm but minutes to install energy efficient lights.

    You look at the different offset schemes, you’ve commented on their inaccuracies and when you dig down most of them are just things we should be doing anyway.

    The problem is, with current levels of public engagement on climate change, without this funding these things would never happen.

    I still believe that more energy efficient globes are sold on the basis they’ll save money rather than their environmental impact.

    Your also forgetting one thing. In most circumstances Carbon offset schemes do result in less carbon in the atmosphere. Sustainable no — beneficial yes.

    Massive infrastructure and lifestyle changes need to happen but are you comfortable to sit back and do nothing until these longer term solutions are in place?

    And yes – Electricity 100% solar, Natural Gas 100% offset, car and all plane travel offset for the last 4-years.

  • mamajama

    I have to disagree with Shayne Tilley. There is no way to get great change when people say that they are doing all they can right now. The truth is all of us could be doing more and should be doing more RIGHT NOW. And by accepting the pathetic excuse that this is all that can be done at the moment…we are just buying into the crap and allowing what NEEDS to be done to be postponed. In my opinion being satisfied with too little is almost as bad as not caring at all.

  • http://www.tyssendesign.com.au Tyssen

    If you really want to reduce the environmental footprint of your website, company or home, then renewable energy and greater efficiency will help. Buying carbon credits will not.

    I thought the whole point about linking to the Energy Today website was about offsetting the effects of your server’s energy use (not your own personal energy use).

    The Energy Today website says there are currently no hosts in Australia that run on renewable energy, so you can use renewable energy in your own home or business, but if you don’t run your own servers (which is going to be a lot of people in web development) but will still like to do something in this area, what other choice do you have?

    I suppose you could transfer your hosting to an overseas provider that does use renewable energy, but I’d rather keep my hosting local if I can.

  • Anonymous

    > for as long as we refuse to grasp the reality of environmental
    > destruction, the destruction will get worse.

    :agree:

    It is like the bio-fuel that we are supposed to put in our tanks that will in that effect help the environment but it doesn’t. No where near it in fact, as to fill our tank with this fuel would take away food from where the crop came from for one thing.

    Secondly, it’s a forgone conclusion that goverments will clear forest and woodland for this crop to grow, ie In South America where we desperately need to preserve the Amazon.

    Carbon Offsetting? The politition that coined that phrase needs to put a gun to their head… -beep-

    What you can do though is to reduce how much you use your car (I do by the way), and walk (it’s said to be good for you), switch off your TV and lights, turn your heating down (don’t you know it’s getting warmer anyway?) and stop taking so many baths and showers.

    And not to forget to recycle your grocery packaging such as paper and card.

  • mikecorrales

    Well put! There are “legitimate and verified” carbon offsetting programs out there, but for the most part we agree that too often companies use offsetting as an easy way out rather than look for real, meaningful ways to reduce their footprint. It’s easier in many cases these days to pay for your sins rather than just not to commit the sin in the first place. It’s a shame.

    The good news is that there are technological solutions starting to surface that will help us make a real, measured difference. There are also companies finding solutions that will help those who don’t want to sin in the first place. From green web hosting and IT infrastructure providers like my company, Greenest Host, to low energy consuming and zero impact computers. The options for companies looking to do the right thing are gaining momentum and prominence.

    We subscribe to the slogan, “Try every avenue possible to reduce 100% of what we can, once we’ve exhausted all options offset what we can’t…

  • Carlos Bernal

    Too many of you have drank the Kool-Aid.

    You need to separate “Global Warming” from energy usage (carbon-consumption), they are NOT connected.

    1. Every planet in our solar system is warming up, that is without question.
    2. The sun goes through solar cycles in which we are going through the height of sun spot activity.
    3. The earth has gone through and will go through extreme cold and heat ages.
    4. The earth is coming off of an ice age (hence it’s warming up), the next will be in a several thousand years.

    Now energy consumption has it’s own built in control…it’s called cost to the consumer, the more we use the more we pay. This feel good trendy solution of carbon credits will be it’s discredited in a few years.

    It’s good to be froogle and clean, but let’s do it for more practicle reasons…not something like saving “mother earth”.

  • krdr

    I bought “Wash out your Sins”. Now I’m clean as angel.
    Or, I’m not.

  • http://boyohazard.net Octal

    Whilst it’s true that “Global Warming” is a natural process, there is much more to it than solar cycles, including our energy consumption.

  • Tony Vassallo

    I think brothercake is missing the point. Carbon offsetting is supposed to be used when you want to reduce your emissions but can’t. Arguing against offsetting in these instances could also be seen as encouraging people to do nothing.

    In our case, we wanted a hosting provider that used renewable energy to power its servers and offices. When we couldn’t find it we decided the next best thing was to offset our emissions. The end result is the same, providing the offsets are verified and arise from activities that genuinely do result in carbon abatement. This meant only buying abatement certificates that were created from demand side abatement – ie activities that actually reduce energy consumption and that can be measured, audited and verified.

    The criticisms of voluntary offsets arose because some abatement activities were derived from tree plantings which can’t be guaranteed to keep carbon sequestered for at least 100 years. However there are many other abatement activities that do. Some of the most effective involve energy efficiency, such as replacing incandescent lights with high efficiency bulbs, and providing water saving shower heads (that reduce energy needed to produce hot water as well as reduce water consumption).

    These activities directly result in lower emissions, and the certificates they create can be bought and retired, or traded. These activities promote the uptake of more efficient technologies and practices, and the revenue they provide to the organisations that generate them allows them to introduce new practices, technologies and programs. Having a market mechanism to price the abatement ensures a lower cost.

    The whole idea of emissions trading is to create a market where a value is created for reducing carbon emissions. Part of the strong uptake of emissions trading has been because governments have been reluctant to act (in Australia, the states have taken the lead over a reluctant and resistant federal government) and the market has developed a response to the need.

    The slight on the European emissions scheme is misinformed. The scheme did start off in a bad way with far too many permits given out at the beginning, resulting in very low prices and hardly any abatement. However this was a pilot scheme and the phase II scheme has much tighter caps and is trading at about AU$25/tonne at the moment. In 2006, 3-5 million tonnes per day were traded, and the forward market out to 2013 is alive and well.

    The post by Carlos is also wrong. Global warming is real and has a sound basis in physics. The natural greenhouse effect keeps Earth 30 degrees Celsius warmer than in its absence. Most of this is due to water vapour and CO2. Carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) from burning fossil fuels has increased the level of CO2 from 280 ppm to 380 ppm in the last century and by almost 20 ppm in the last decade. CO2 levels in the atmosphere are like a throttle or amplifier on the natural greenhouse effect. Small changes make big differences. The warming effect from solar cycles and other natural phenomena are much smaller than warming from man-made greenhouse gas emissions. If you need any convincing have a look at http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/corporate/pressoffice/myths/index.html. The Hadley Centre also has a number of publications if you want a bit more substance, eg http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/research/hadleycentre/pubs/brochures/2005/climate_greenhouse.pdf

    Tony from EnergyToday.com.au

  • Anonymous

    The MetoOffice article on Climate change myths link is http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/corporate/pressoffice/myths/

  • Php_penguin

    I am surprised it took you so long to say “industrialised west”… it usually comes out in the first paragraph…

  • KiwiJohn

    I’m not sure I understand the global benefits of carbon credit trading.

    Seems to me that if, for example, my business produces 10 tonnes of emissions per year and someone else has a forest reducing emissions by 10 tonnes, I can buy their credits to offset my emissions. This results in zero emissions in principle, but does nothing to reduce total emissions.

  • Rob

    Brothercake,

    I take it that your point is this: You get pissed off when companies hide behind carbon credits. Yes. Me too.

    It seems to me, though, that we could have avoided half the discussion in this thread if you had just said that rather than attacking the concept of carbon credits. By putting words into the mouths of everyone who buys carbon credits, all you succeed in doing is creating argument for argument’s sake.

    Maybe we could have had some discussion on solutions rather than a whole thread dedicated to clarifying its own point.

    Rob

  • http://www.aarontgrogg.com aarontgrogg

    Brothercake, et al:

    Have you come across this method for reducing your carbon footprint?
    http://www.blackle.com/
    (more about this site here: http://www.blackle.com/about/ and http://www.treehugger.com/files/2007/02/black_google_wo.php)

    I thought it an interesting approach, and wish Google would simply change their homepage to this full-time; it would be interesting to see that “Watt hours saved” number sour.

    And, of course, this site is less-than-accessible, but we all know how simply alternative CSS can fix that when needed/desired.

    And for the rest of us developers, I see an awful lot of white background colors out there… SitePoint included… :-)

    Atg

  • floatingworld

    I read about at test that showed that blackle does not really save much energy for LCD computers, but does make a difference for the old style monitors:techlogg.com/content/view/360/31.

    My company is also helping “green” the Internet: we host are websites using solar energy. We are called >Solar Energy Host: http://www.solarenergyhost.com