A Balancing Act on Emissions

Published: September 1, 2008
The Apollo Alliance, a coalition working to promote green jobs and clean energy, has been struggling with how to offset the global warming pollution that results from its day-to-day operations, especially from its travel.

“Our carbon footprint is ridiculous,” its co-director, Kate Gordon, said referring to the amount of greenhouse gases emitted each year by the organization.

Air travel is its worst offender, Ms. Gordon said. The quest for renewable energy has its employees on the move for speaking engagements and lobbying.

“Our president, Jerome Ringo, is probably on the road 250 days a year,” Ms. Gordon said. “I travel about 25 percent of the time. We do a ton of travel as an organization.”

To help reduce the role it plays in the release of carbon emissions, the Apollo Alliance has tried to develop a two-pronged approach. One, cut back on air travel, seemed obvious.

Air miles are responsible for 3 percent to 13 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, according to various reports. A single round-trip coast-to-coast flight can create about three tons of carbon dioxide emissions, about the same amount as driving a midsize car for six months.

Another, more controversial, option that the Apollo Alliance considered was carbon offsets.

On paper at least, offsets pay for reductions in carbon dioxide production. Offset providers, both nonprofit and for-profit, finance renewable energy projects that reduce the need for electricity from fossil fuel, provide upfront costs for energy efficiency programs, or pay to plant trees.

But there has been criticism of offsetting, with some likening them to medieval papal indulgences, allowing individuals, companies and organizations to continue their polluting ways by simply paying a fee.

As carbon offsets increase in popularity — sales in the United States rose to $88 million in 2007 from $39 million in 2006, according to the research firm New Carbon Finance — many travelers have questions about the practice.

“I talk to a lot of people about carbon offsets these days,” said Rusty Pritchard, a former environmental economist at Emory University who serves as outreach director for the Evangelical Environmental Network, a national Christian organization. “They have questions that range from the scientific, like, ‘How does paying for energy efficiency in Brazil offset the carbon you’re emitting on a flight to New York?’ to ‘Is it fair to claim this as a business expense?’ I’ve even had people at universities ask, ‘How do we explain this to our donors?’ ”

Specialists in global warming say the best way for business travelers to reduce their carbon emissions is to limit the time they spend on the road. “The average American creates about 20 tons of CO2 — about twice the emissions of the average European and far more than people in the rest of the world,” said Anja Kollmuss, senior scientist at the nonprofit Stockholm Environment Institute, a science-based policy institute. “So, if you fly to Europe and back a couple of times, that adds quite a lot to your carbon footprint.”

Once a traveler has reduced flying time, “carbon offsets are worth doing, if you do them right,” said Mark C. Trexler, a carbon reduction strategies consultant and author of a 2006 report, “A Consumer’s Guide to Retail Carbon Offset Providers.”

The challenge is to find quality offsets, because no universally accepted method of certification or verification exists, though some voluntary standards — like the Voluntary Carbon Standard, the Gold Standard and Green-E Climate certification — are gaining acceptance.

“You need careful monitoring to make sure these offsets are transparent and verifiable, that you can document that the offset is permanent and additional,” said Representative Peter F. Welch, Democrat of Vermont and a sponsor of the Carbon Neutrality Act of 2007. The legislation would guarantee that offset providers deliver what they promise, much in the way the Agriculture Department verifies organic farming practices.

Crucial to finding quality carbon offsets is looking for what in the field is called “additionality.”

“You want to invest in a project that would not have happened otherwise,” Ms. Kollmuss said. Consider a program that helps build wind farms, she says. If a particular wind farm would not have been built without the capital provided by the offset vendor, the project is additional.

“But if it’s required by law,” to, say, help meet a state’s renewable energy requirements, “it’s not additional.”

To help sort through the confusion and decide which providers to use, John B. Izzo, an author of business books and a management consultant, used several online references, including a guide to offsetting published by the Nature Conservancy and an offset-provider rating compiled by the Tufts Climate Initiative.

He chose a Swiss-based offset provider, Myclimate, because of its high ranking on the Tufts survey.

Similarly, Mr. Welch offsets the travel associated with his work by using the Vermont-based offset provider Native Energy. He pays more than $800 out of pocket to offset 71-plus tons of carbon each year.

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