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Earth Power Technology

The Inexact Science of Carbon Neutrality 302

Posted by timothy
from the these-are-not-weight-watcher-exchanges dept.
snydeq writes "Sustainable IT's Ted Samson raises questions regarding the purchasing of carbon offsets, a practice growing in popularity among tech companies such as Dell, Yahoo, and Google in an attempt to achieve 'carbon neutrality.' Essentially financial instruments, carbon offsets enable companies to invest money in sustainable endeavors in an attempt to counteract the carbon footprint they incur conducting their business. But as a recent article in the Wall Street Journal shows, measuring the value of these carbon offsets is tricky business, as some recipients of offsets say the results of their sustainable efforts would be achieved regardless of any one company's investment. 'The question of whether carbon offsets hold value just scratches the surface of the overall carbon-neutrality question,' Samson writes. 'For the time being, there isn't even a consistent approach to measuring an organization's carbon footprint in the first place. And if you don't know how much CO2 you're responsible for, how do you know how much offsetting is necessary to become neutral?'"
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The Inexact Science of Carbon Neutrality

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  • Bullshit (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 08, 2009 @07:45PM (#26379549)

    Doesn't anyone watch Penn and Teller? They already covered it [wattsupwiththat.com].

  • by ducomputergeek (595742) on Thursday January 08, 2009 @07:49PM (#26379597)

    I'm not sure about carbon neutral, but we've seen a our power bill go down by 90%. Still, it will take about 4 - 5 years to recoup the investment, but if you view it as a sunk cost, it's freed up a lot of cash flow.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by vvaduva (859950)

      I am curious, is there a way to calculate the carbon emissions created by the manufacturing, transportation and installation of the panels or have you only done the financial cost/benefit analysis for the project? And if there is a way to calculate it, what are the benefits, if any?

      This is a serious question btw.

      • by ducomputergeek (595742) on Thursday January 08, 2009 @08:35PM (#26380173)

        We didn't even bother to consider it because we didn't do it to be "Green". We did it because we had the cash on hand, the tax write off for the investment expired in December, and by switching to solar we freed up enough money to pay for another developers salary.

        • by aurispector (530273) on Thursday January 08, 2009 @08:47PM (#26380321)

          Now THAT is how the real world works. Congratulations on making a sound investment. Carbon trading is so obviously a useless bullshit scam. The real damage done is in the fact that people think it actually works and hence ignore other actually beneficial measures.

          I'd love to do a parody website about the environmental benefits of obesity. After all, human fat is a fairly dense hydrocarbon. The fatter you become, the more carbon is sequestered. Imagine the environmental benefits if everyone in the US gained 30 lbs! A billion pounds of carbon sequestered! Woo-hoo!

      • The benefits are still huge unless some group of villains deliberately vandalizes solar panels and thus shorten the expected life of the panel.

        google.

  • by dgatwood (11270) on Thursday January 08, 2009 @07:51PM (#26379617) Journal

    The whole concept is junk science. It's basically saying that you can urinate in someone's swimming pool if you filter an equal amount of salt out of the ocean.

    The real world doesn't work that way. In the real world, local effects are just as bad as global effects, and there's no guarantee that opposite local effects in two places will ever actually cancel each other out. It's a nice way to help people feel good about themselves, but in the grand scheme of things, it is naive to think that carbon offsets, no matter how large, can undo the damage of the carbon you shouldn't have emitted in the first place....

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Eskarel (565631)

      Well it's more like saying that if a thousand people take a leak in the Indian Ocean and you filter out a roughly equivilant amount of piss from the Atlantic that you're neutral.

      You're right in the sense that you're not purely neutral, and you're right in the sense that it may never be truly neutral, but a swimming pool is disconnected from the ocean, whereas all the air is connected.

      In the end it's not perfect, and it'd be better not to piss in the ocean at all, but if you have to metaphorically piss in th

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        Except for the fact that CO2 is a very poor Greenhouse gas (how's the weather by the way? Love that Global warming, don't you?). A far, far superior greenhouse gas is even more common, and when CO2 gets filtered out, it get's replaced with this gas.

        Noone mentions it though. Why? Because the Gas which is four to eight times more efficient at reflecting sunlight out into space is O2.

        Oxygen

        Here's an idea - Let's ban the release of Oxygen into the atmosphere! Maybe get some of the green-peacers out of there

        • by sexconker (1179573) on Thursday January 08, 2009 @08:17PM (#26379931)

          Get the fuck out of here with your logic and science. These have no place in a discussion about the environment!

        • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 08, 2009 @08:21PM (#26379963)

          From wikipedia:

          Although contributing to many other physical and chemical reactions, the major atmospheric constituents, nitrogen (N2), oxygen (O2), and argon (Ar), are not greenhouse gases. This is because homonuclear diatomic molecules such as N2 and O2 and monatomic molecules such as Ar have no net change in their dipole moment when they vibrate and hence are almost totally unaffected by infrared light.

        • "Noone mentions it though. Why?"

          Same reason that phrenology is not mentioned, ie: it's utter bullshit.

          "Here's an idea - Let's ban the release of Oxygen into the atmosphere!"

          Here's a different idea, get a clue [realclimate.org].
        • Do you know what a greenhouse is?

          Do you know what greenhouse gases are, and why they are called that?

          Did you read your own post?

          Seriously. Go back and read what you wrote. Ponder the part about "reflecting sunlight out into space."

          Ponder some more. Maybe, eventually, you will realize how incredibly ignorant you just made yourself out to be.

      • by roc97007 (608802)

        > You're right in the sense that you're not purely neutral, and you're right in the sense that it may never be truly neutral, but a swimming pool is disconnected from the ocean, whereas all the air is connected.

        Well, not really. For instance, Ozone up really high, good. Ozone down really low, not good.

        • by evanbd (210358)
          Except that the ozone doesn't last long enough to move between the two zones, whereas CO2 does last long enough to largely equalize concentrations around the globe.
          • by roc97007 (608802)

            Really? Then what do the trees breathe?

            • by evanbd (210358)

              You can't be serious. Yes, plants remove CO2 from the air (they also add it in lesser amounts). That doesn't mean they absorb all the CO2 that goes by them, or that all the atmosphere passes by plants (hint: the atmosphere is taller than trees). Yes, the presence of plants and finite diffusion rates means that local emissions create a local bubble. However, localized emissions will also impact CO2 levels around the globe. OTOH, localized ozone sources (or sinks) have *no* effect on the ozone layer -- o

    • by FooAtWFU (699187) on Thursday January 08, 2009 @07:59PM (#26379723) Homepage
      That's ridiculous. Unlike noxious-fume pollution, no one is in the least bit worried about the "local effects" of carbon dioxide. It already makes up billions of tons of atmosphere. It only does "damage" in the aggregate. The aggregate is all that matters.
      • No, what is ridiculous is that we are seriously considering further trashing the already near ruined world economy over the scare-junk-unproven-science that is anthropogenic global warming.

      • Yes and the aggregate is ~10Gt/yr, whereas the aggregate capacity of natural sinks is ~3Gt/yr. For carbon cap and trade to work and get us back to 3Gt/yr we need to quantify the individual emissions and sinks, the capacity of vegatation to act a sink is not an easy thing to measure and varies wildly, same with the idea of dumping iron into the ocean. Neither should be used as a "carbon offset".

        It's much, much, simpler to quantify (and control through taxes/regulation) the main sources, ie: fossil fuels a
    • by hey! (33014)

      In the real world, local effects are just as bad as global effects

      Perhaps, but it depends on the pollutants. Lead emissions are a local problem (although there is archaeological evidence of airborne lead pollution in Northern Europe from Roman industry, hundreds of miles away). CO2 is a pollutant that has little local impact, even in comparison to the water emissions from combustion. Except in special circumstances, it has no local significance whatsoever. CO2 is a global pollutant. It makes perfe

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by dwarfking (95773)
        When did CO2, which is an absolute necessity for the foliage that covers this planet, become a pollutant? Without CO2 we have no plants. Without plants we have no food and less oxygen. Do we consider Oxygen a pollutant as well?
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by jcr (53032)

          When did CO2, which is an absolute necessity for the foliage that covers this planet, become a pollutant?

          When Al Gore found it convenient to do so.

          -jcr

          • by evanbd (210358) on Thursday January 08, 2009 @10:24PM (#26381231)
            Too much oxygen is bad for you. Too little is also bad. The fact that some CO2 is a necessary component of our atmosphere has very little bearing on whether some larger amount is better, worse, or about the same. There are a *wide* variety of substances that are important in small amounts and problematic in large amounts. It seems reasonable to consider them pollutants if they're man-made and at problematic levels.
        • by smoker2 (750216)
          Ok.
          Over at NASAs Earth Observatory site, they have some interesting viewpoints and research together with images. There is a study (published 2006) that has been tracking the re-growth of forests after fires. Part of this work takes place in the far north of Canada, and Alaska.

          Since the 1990s, scientists have known that increasing global temperatures have lengthened the growing season in the Arctic. With carbon dioxide, one of the key ingredients in photosynthesis, also on the rise, the forest should have been thriving. But it wasn't. The forest was getting browner, not greener.

          They go on to discover that because of a warming climate, there are droughts occurring which deprive the forests of water, and so gradually they die. And although other trees can move in, they will suffer the same limitations. Overal

        • by khallow (566160)
          The dose makes the poison. In high enough concentrations oxygen is an extremely hazardous material. So yes, you can pollute with oxygen.
        • Do we consider Oxygen a pollutant as well?

          Try living in a 100% oxygen atmosphere at sea level pressure and let us know.

          Anything can be a pollutant when the levels get too high. In some cases, the levels have to get very high to have a pollutant effect. In others ... they don't.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by TapeCutter (624760)
          "When did CO2, which is an absolute necessity for the foliage that covers this planet, become a pollutant?"

          About 200yrs ago, when we started burning coal in sufficient quantities to significantly alter the composition of Earth's atmosphere.

          Define: pollutant - "A resource out of place, that causes unwanted or undesirable changes in the environment."
    • by roc97007 (608802)

      And that's assuming your carbon offset money is actually going towards real carbon offsets.

    • by Genda (560240)

      It's even worse than that. It becomes a PR tool in the hands of people who have tremendously more interest in looking good, than actually doing the right thing, and what you end up with is Chevron giving you 60 second bites of "What fine stewards of the environment they are", when in fact their litany of environmental abuse is nothing less than shocking.

      Also don't let all the talk by Oil companies about alternative energy fool you, no oil or coal producer spends anywhere near 1% of their net profit research

    • by sgt_doom (655561)

      Well said, Good Citizen dgatwood, well said.

      Frankly, I don't think the coming Ice Age (methane + global warming) will give a frozen rat's ass in Hell about carbon offsets. Just me speaking.....

  • by gatkinso (15975) on Thursday January 08, 2009 @07:54PM (#26379655)

    And nothing more.

    Spend the money by planing some trees.

    • by svnt (697929) on Thursday January 08, 2009 @08:09PM (#26379841)

      My favorite commentary on carbon offsetting is Cheat Neutral [cheatneutral.com]

      Brilliant way to make a statement. Yes, it is real. No, the creators don't keep the money. No, I'm not involved with the company/website.

      • by pavon (30274)

        Bwahaha - That is a brilliant idea! I think the site would have been funnier though if their descriptions were worded the way an actual company with more subtle references to carbon offsets. Ie just tell the joke, don't explain it :)

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by jmccay (70985)
      Well, planting the trees would work better. ;) Anyways, if you want to spend the money, spend it on planting tree, bushes and anything else that can consume greenhouse gases in cities and other Urban environments--like on top of buildings in New York City. Scientific American did an article (this [sciam.com]) on it, or if you prefer this [wikipedia.org] article from wikipedia. This would be more productive than falling for Al Gore's scams!
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by TooMuchToDo (882796)

        Or buy renewable energy credits:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renewable_Energy_Certificates [wikipedia.org]

        Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs), also known as Green tags, Renewable Energy Credits, or Tradable Renewable Certificates (TRCs), are tradable environmental commodities in the United States which represent proof that 1 megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity was generated from an eligible renewable energy resource.

        Much less ambiguous then a "carbon credit".

    • Modern day Indulgences And nothing more. Spend the money by planing some trees.

      Offsets are typically generated from emissions-reducing projects. The most common project type is renewable energy, such as wind farms, biomass energy, or hydroelectric dams. Other common project types include energy efficiency projects, the destruction of industrial pollutants or agricultural byproducts, destruction of landfill methane, and forestry projects.

      Wikipedia: Carbon Offset [wikipedia.org]
    • You mean planing some wood, right?
    • by BCW2 (168187)
      My bumper sticker:
      Recycle air
      Plant a tree!

      The only thing that actually works is the simplest and cheapest.
    • Spend the money by planing some trees.

      You see, this is part of the scam of carbon offsets. Planting trees is the biggest traditional offset.

      However, what do you do with the trapped carbon after you've planted trees? If they burn (either as trees or as wood), then you've done nothing. If they die and rot, then you've done next to nothing. Planting trees is just sweeping the dust under the rug so that no one will notice. It's still "in the system" as it were.

      Unless we take those trees and bury them right back in the ground where we got the c

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 08, 2009 @07:55PM (#26379673)

    Bought by companies who want a good image. That's about all they are good for.

  • Not a fix (Score:2, Insightful)

    by dogmatixpsych (786818)
    Who offsets the carbon of the carbon offsetting companies?

    Buying "carbon credits" is ridiculous. It's a bit like a company using all the water in one river in the U.S. then paying other companies to drill wells for villages in Africa (i.e., being "water neutral"). It's great for the Africans but doesn't solve the problem of destroying a whole river ecosystem in the U.S.

    I'm all for reducing noxious emissions and conserving energy but buying carbon credits does not solve the problem.
  • by CannonballHead (842625) on Thursday January 08, 2009 @08:03PM (#26379757)

    If it were just a volunteer program, that might be one thing. Giving money is another thing. I have heard that they like building rainforests with the money, too, which I have also heard are NOT the best thing for producing oxygen and eating CO2...

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by reginaldo (1412879)
      Maybe they should stop building rainforests and start growing rainforests. That's probably the problem, cement trees are not very good at respiration.
      • Hehe...

        Joking aside, I assume (this isn't even based on wikipedia, talk about [citation needed] that rainforests also have a lot of rotting material. I actually know THAT part for a fact, even that Earth series that recently came out (BBC, I think? Forgot hte name of it now, heh) had that in there. Rotting stuff produces lots of CO2.

  • FTA: (Score:3, Insightful)

    by CaptainPatent (1087643) on Thursday January 08, 2009 @08:10PM (#26379853) Journal

    as some recipients of offsets say the results of their sustainable efforts would be achieved regardless of any one company's investment.

    That's not true, those recipients wouldn't get filthy rich without company investments!

  • by rlp (11898) on Thursday January 08, 2009 @08:18PM (#26379935)

    The government just needs to enact two laws to solve global warming:

    1) Ban all e-commerce
    2) Mandate a one thousand year document retention period

    All government and commercial transactions will be done on paper drastically increasing demand. Paper companies will chop down trees to make paper and then plant new ones that will pull carbon dioxide out of the air. The carbon in the form of paper will be sequestered by the document retention requirement. Problem solved.

    Oh yeah, and to speed commerce we can build a network of pneumatic tubes.

  • by adamofgreyskull (640712) on Thursday January 08, 2009 @08:21PM (#26379967)
    CheatNeutral [cheatneutral.com]. Enjoy!
  • by gandhi_2 (1108023) on Thursday January 08, 2009 @08:26PM (#26380053) Homepage
    Carbon Indulgences [wikipedia.org]. I sense an Environmental Protestantism coming on.
  • Subsidies (Score:2, Interesting)

    by dj245 (732906)
    When you start handing out subsidies, people start chasing the subsidies rather than the goals that the subsidies are trying to jump-start.

    See Ethanol, various agricultural subsidies, tax breaks for wealthy and profitable corporations, subsidies to erect cable lines and the monopolies that has created, etc.

    I can think of very few subsidies that have worked out well. A much better idea is to incorporate the cost of "dirty" industry into the services and goods produced. Then consumers can compare on co
    • by Wildclaw (15718)

      When you start handing out subsidies, people start chasing the subsidies rather than the goals that the subsidies are trying to jump-start.

      So true. Subsidies is the exact opposite of what you should do. There is only one decently efficent way of dealing with externalties, and that is to tax the hell out of it.

      Of course, politicians will never do something like that. Instead of taxing the release of CO2 into the atmosphere they will just tax using energy which punishes all types of energy uses independent of how it is produced. Then they will create random subsidies on various non-externalty based energy production methods on a pseudo random ba

  • by KnightNavro (585943) on Thursday January 08, 2009 @08:57PM (#26380403)
    Some credits are better than others. There are several verification programs in existence. In the USA, I am most familiar with the Chicago Climate Exchange and the California Climate Action Reserve (CCAR). A lot of projects would have occurred anyway due to profitability or regulations, and GHG credits from these projects are junk. Preserving a piece of forest in a desolate valley nobody could profitably harvest or installing a landfill gas flare where carbon has become too expensive should be considered "business as usual," but unfortunately some accreditation agencies and verifiers don't consider "business as usual" and say there is a reduction anyway. These credits are a scam perpetrated by the seller, the verifier, the accreditor, and sometimes the buyer.

    There are some projects that generate real reductions. For example, capture or methane from manure lagoons or landfills where it is not required by regulation and is not less expensive than carbon treatment or the planting and preservation of trees in an area that would otherwise be harvested. These credits are real reductions.

    The problem is the layman has no idea where their credits are coming from. I'm in the industry, and I can't always tell you the value of a credit.

    • by roc97007 (608802)

      > The problem is the layman has no idea where their credits are coming from.

      Exactly. How possibly could they? We're talking people with real lives, not (and I sincerely mean this in the most positive sense) eco-geeks. When you ask even intelligent, well-educated people to make decisions out of their area of expertise, you often get pandemonium. And that's what we're getting here.

  • by geoffrobinson (109879) on Thursday January 08, 2009 @09:11PM (#26380547) Homepage

    Global Warming has all the elements of caricatures of religion.

    Sin? Carbon.

    Original Sin? Capitalism/Industry.

    Which leads us to carbon offset. Yes, just like Roman Catholic indulgences. Except they produced something useful. The Sistine Chapel.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by kaos07 (1113443)

      Right, because "sin" is "all the elements of religion". On that logic you could pretty much call scientists proclaiming the dangers of lung cancer as a religious cult.

      Equating decades of scientific research to a story tale about a Jewish carpenter and his drinking buddies is ridiculous.

  • by dmomo (256005) on Thursday January 08, 2009 @09:19PM (#26380623) Homepage

    Is what will cause the over intelligent person to fail. No matter how much time you spend analyzing some decision, there will be even more to consider. You will never know for sure what the best option is.

    It comes down to "stupid" and seemingly "irrational" reasons that make us finally decide.

    This:

    These Corn Pops are cheaper... but I get more Oz. per Dollar if I buy the more expensive ones... but I may not finish the bigger box... but if I get the small box, I might have a surplus of milk. Oh.. I could buy the smaller milk. Oh wow. The value of the quart-sized milk drops dramatically from that of the Gallon size. Ok. I will rule out milk as a deciding factor...

    Or this:
    These corn pops look good. Big box or small? I'm not that hungry now, which has nothing to do with anything... but small box it is.

    I guess it's a matter of choosing your battles. In general, I believe that if we mean well and make honest decisions, on average we will do better. Not always, but it will tend towards better. Do try.. but do not kill yourself. The returns on worrying will likely diminish as you sit there.

    If everyone TRIED to be conscious of energy waste, I feel pretty confident that the net payoff would be worth it. Again, only go as far as is reasonable. Yes. That's a subjective thing. That's one thing "Humans" are skilled at. Subjectivity. It's an important part of what makes us intelligence. Call it your heart or your gut. It's smarter than the credit we give it.

    • by LingNoi (1066278)

      Wasting energy isn't the problem. It's energy production that is. More research needs to be pumped into stuff like Bussard Fusion reactors and then once finished the whole debate is over.

  • by philspear (1142299) on Thursday January 08, 2009 @09:39PM (#26380839)

    (Kind of an off-topic rant, mostly because I'm seeing a lot of responses saying "See?!? Global warming is clearly crap because it has holes, now leave my diesel-powered hummer alone")

    When did people start thinking science was easy and could ever provide a simple answer to anything? At best you get vague general theories, and usually know at least a few big exceptions prior to the theory being written down. And that's when the theory applies to something that is entirely academic. When it has serious economic implications, how clear a picture do you think is going to develop?

    Maybe we do need to start adding "just a theory" to evolution taught in high school, and add it to everything else taught in science as well.

    It's important to point out the holes in any theory, to critique buisness practices and government regulations, and avoid the harms that global warming could bring about, but resist the temptation to think in terms of black and white on such complex issues.

  • by ZiggyM (238243) * on Thursday January 08, 2009 @10:19PM (#26381187)
    Ok, most comments are heavily critizising carbon credits, so, risking being bashed, I will write a little about the goods of carbon credits, from a perspective of a peruvian citizen. First, of course its not the ideal solution. Many in slashdot want either ideal or nothing. The best solution is for factories to stop polluting. However, in the real world, this is not currently achievable, as most of us continue to buy products that we ask those factories to make for us. Factories are just the intermediaries, we are the ones that demand more stuff. if you really want *factories* to stop polluting, *stop buying* their stuff, reduce, reuse, and recycle, and have less kids. That said, the Kyoto protocol is at least a starting point, which formalized the mechanism for carbon credits. its a way for factories to continue polluting, BUT with two new advantages: 1) Some countries now put a price on that pollution, and factories now must pay for that, or must reduce their pollution. The best incentive is always money. In Europe this does work. And 2) not only do they have to pay, but that money goes towards projects that are good for the environment. As an example, here in Peru where I live, its actually a good business to plant and maintain a forest, because we get $ from carbon credits. This would have been impossible before Kyoto, and I can tell you first-hand that nobody gives a crap here about forests unless they receive some money in exchange, and the government does nothing to stop deforestation, so its left to private business to do something. In fact our rainforest is being heavily devastated mostly by coca plantations that destroy it. At least the carbon credits offset that a little bit. Hopefully as the cost of a carbon credit goes up, so will the business of making and maintaining forests. I also have a lot of criticism for carbon credits, but nobody was saying what its good for, so I had to.
  • Old news (Score:4, Informative)

    by pjbgravely (751384) <pjbgravely2@NOsPAm.gmail.com> on Thursday January 08, 2009 @10:52PM (#26381447) Homepage Journal
    I always wondered what the motives for claiming that CO2 causes global warming. I figured it must be power or money.

    After reading this article [discovermagazine.com] I finally figured out it was power.
  • Anyone who thinks that buying 'Carbon Credits' is anything other than a scam is a sucker...and as the man said one is born every minute.

  • The idea was never meant to be accurate, science, or anything similar. It was meant to be a PR balloon sent up to distract people in the very least, and if it was successfully pushed past the sheeple, a way for companies to make it look like they cared and/or were trying to do something. "Companies" should be the hint. Those animals don't do anything that doesn't make them money unless forced to, and the administration that floated the idea has done everything it could at every turn to make sure the only th

  • by nsayer (86181) * <[moc.ufk] [ta] [reyasn]> on Thursday January 08, 2009 @11:45PM (#26381939) Homepage

    How are these different from the indulgences the Catholic church used to sell?

    For those unclear on the concept, the church used to sell certificates that granted time off from purgatory for your sins. To make a long story short, the unscrupulous sale of these are one of the big ticket items in the list of thesis that Martin Luther pinned up to the church door, which led eventually to the protestant reformation.

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