Sunday, May 2, 2010

Carbon Footprint Hangover

In the last posting we went over our recent methodology and calculation for assessing my lab's carbon footprint and purchasing the carbon credits to "offset" our impact. I mentioned that there are some sites that offer helpful comparisons to a number of sources of carbon credits and that there are some attempts to certify the validity of the offering organizations.

Most of the sources of carbon credits indicate what the funds are used for - for example renewable energy, efficiency, reforestation. The site I referred to for comparison mentioned that there are a number of other categories of carbon credit sources that are not certified.

There is more! In fact, the "carbon credit market" is a  bit like the wild west or the derivatives market ... you pay your money and you take your chances.

First, some background based on my observations and research.

Carbon credits should be purchased by individuals or companies wanting to offset their impact, measured by carbon equivalent to greenhouse gas emissions or other sources. Last week I showed how we calculated our lab's footprint and what we included, what we did not, how we converted and what the final number was. I also said that we were purchasing our carbon credits from I felt then, and still do, that this is a responsible source and that I am getting what I paid for.

When you buy carbon credits, you should look for at least the following information from the source:

1) specifics on where and what the funds will be used for in terms of carbon offsets; you'd like to about the assets being purchased; like, know where the forest is, or wind mills are, or other asset that contributes the carbon offset you are getting for your money.
2) how is the carbon offset calculated? How much GHG/unit of whatever they are promising to buy or conserve on your behalf.
3) how much of your funds actually go to the offset promised in 1 and 2 above?
4) how long will the asset last? (CO2 will stay in the atmosphere around 100 years I understand. If you buy some trees to offset your carbon, and the trees grow for 20 years and then get cut down, that's a problem.)
5) is this a "future tense" promise or "past tense" assertion? Apparently, many of the carbon offset schemes are rather speculative in terms of timing, delivery and impact. (More on this when we discuss a recent news article targeting this.)
6) is there any track record of success with this organization?
7) is "everybody happy" about this or are the folks whose land got confiscated to put up the windmills (and are now unable to support their basic lifestyle) standing when the music stops?!
8) is this "new" carbon reduction and not just something that is going to occur anyways or has it been going on for some time and now relabeled as "carbon reduction?" For example, if you offer 'not to cut down trees' as your carbon offset asset but the trees are on protected lands that were never to be cut anyways, is that a net gain for the environment?

There are likely a few more but this is a good start.

Some time ago I was going to do something different for my brother on his birthday. Rather than get him a conventional present I thought I'd adopt a whale in his name. I had seen an ad in a magazine for an organization that was working to stabilize the whale population and it seemed like a good idea. Then the vision of a postcard picture of the wide blue sea came to mind with an arrow pointing to the water and a label "your whale here" popped into my head. I realized that, as great as this sounded, I really did not have any idea whether my few bucks were going to help anything remotely close to the ocean, let along a whale. I thought better of it and settled for something more practical.

Apparently carbon offset credits can be a bit like this.

I recently read an excellent article (global report) in the Christian Science Monitor, April 26, 2010, titled "Blowing smoke?" The article, the result of a 4 month multimedia investigation by reporters on five continents, was a joint project of the Monitor and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at BU ( There are links to the story on the Center's website ( or you can read the text and watch video material at the Monitor site (; video at The article gives an excellent overview of the concept and motivation for carbon credit purchases and then dives deep into some of the issues surrounding their offer and purchase. They use the term "buyer beware" in the article!

I don't want to parrot the whole article here but it is comprehensive, detailed and offers a very interesting view into this "business." It cites examples of green entrepreneurs (in some cases essentially scam artists with a new version of "property in Florida") offering, on one end, the Vatican a forest in Hungary to offset the Holy See's carbon footprint, to some proposing to dump tons of iron filings in the ocean to spur plankton growth (and hence consume CO2; there were some regulatory concerns about this and, also, this had not been scientifically evaluated), to an organization that's been planting trees for decades suddenly offering the process as carbon credits. There are details on native inhabitants being inconvenienced/impacted negatively by some of the proposed plans. Most individuals/organizations featured in the article were not able to meet the requirements I listed earlier.

The article also offers some helpful discussion on the certification process and mentions the Voluntary Carbon Standard (, Plan Vivo (; and this one has a photo of smiling indigenous people on its website so must be good!) and Gold Standard ( as independent organizations for certification. They seem to be legit (but I can make no assurances one way or the other on this from my own work!).

The last one, Gold Standard, has a link to a report on "The Carbon Management and Offsetting Trends Survey Results 2009" on its site (see The report summarizes the attitudes of a large number of industries across many sectors towards carbon offsets, what factors motivate companies to purchase carbon offsets and what the "carbon industry" needs to do to further stimulate the market., the organization we bought our carbon credits from, is listed as the 4th of 15 most recognized sources of carbon credits in this report.

So, I still feel good. But you should read this article in the Monitor - it is good and enlightening.

But, now I'm thinking, if someone donated funds to my laboratory at UC for research on manufacturing process improvement or replacement (one of my "technology wedges" ideas maybe?) and we calculated how much greenhouse gas this would offset over the life of the technology, could the funds provider claim this as carbon offset?

It'd be new, verifiable (trust me!), we've a great track record, no one will be unhappy about this (trust me again - I'll even let you talk to the grad students), and we promise, minus a small overhead that goes back to the Governator, to convert your funds into technology - sounds like a good deal.

Maybe I'm onto something here!


  1. I'm not a fan of carbon offsets. The money should be focused on updating processes and machinery that will reduce waste.

  2. In my opinion, I prefer reducing carbon emission to buying carbon credit. The reason is that reducing carbon emission tends to be less expensive. Moreover, carbon reduction program can be used to create good publicity for the company.