Hadi Dowlatabadi is a reformed carbon emitter.
As a scientist who studies climate change, he’s acutely aware of the harmful effects on the environment from human activities that release carbon dioxide in the air, like car and air travel and using electricity.
He used to travel some 100,000 miles a year for scientific meetings, and even owned a sports utility vehicle for all of four days before deciding it wasn’t for him. “I came to my senses,” Dowlatabadi said, adding that he also cut down on travel to see more of his children.
Now, Dowlatabadi works largely out of his home in Vancouver, using the phone and giving talks by videoconference. He also helped start a Web site, www.offsetters.com, that allows people to figure out how much CO2 emissions their car or air travel is causing and put money toward clean-energy and other environmentally friendly programs to reduce CO2 emissions elsewhere.
Using these and other ways to “offset” one’s carbon emissions is becoming a big thing these days.
London-based HSBC claims that it became the first major bank last year to offset all of its carbon emissions; Swiss Re, a major reinsurance company based in Zurich, says it will do the same by 2013. Former vice president-turned-environmentalist Al Gore says he offsets all of the emissions that he and his wife Tipper are responsible for, and the Dave Matthews Band on Wednesday announced that it will make renewable, non-carbon energy investments to offset all the carbon emissions caused by the travel and energy use from its tours going back to 1991.
Here’s how carbon offsetting works. Dowlatabadi figures that a small car such as a Honda Civic, driven the average of 12,000 miles a year, would produce about 3.5 tons of carbon dioxide in a year.
Goal: Carbon neutral
By putting money toward renewable energy sources, paying for more efficient cooking stoves in developing countries or other green activities, you can “offset” an equal amount of CO2 emissions. Offset everything you do, as Gore and others do, and you can reach the goal of becoming “carbon-neutral.”
To be sure, the amounts of CO2 actually being reduced by such offsetting activities are puny compared to the vast amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases from industrial activities globally, and achieving meaningful cutbacks in global emissions remains an enormous task.
To some environmentalists, the idea of paying to compensate for one’s carbon emissions has inherent dangers of its own, especially if it merely serves as a moral salve to atone for driving a gas-guzzler.
“If it is helpful in serving to educate people about the carbon impacts of their activity, that would be useful,” said Dan Becker, director of the global warming program at the Sierra Club, the oldest and largest grass-roots environmental organization in the country.
“But if instead people view it as a way to avoid the guilt for acting wrongly, then it would be counterproductive,” Becker said. “People shouldn’t see ’carbon neutral’ as a papal indulgence to allow them to continue to pollute.”
Nonetheless, some say it’s a hopeful sign that companies and prominent individuals are setting an example.
“At this point it’s basically symbolic, but the goal is to build a groundswell to get countries to do something about this,” says M. Granger Morgan, head of the department of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa.
“CO2 mixes throughout the atmosphere, so unless all major emitters cut back, we’ll have a problem,” Morgan said. “What you’ve seen recently is people wanting to take a leadership position.”
In the case of Swiss Re, the reinsurance company, taking steps to reduce carbon emissions has a direct impact on the bottom line, said Ivo Menzinger, head of sustainability and emerging risk management.
Swiss Re backs up big insurance companies that can be left with huge bills to rebuild areas hit by hurricanes, tornadoes and other atmospheric disasters that are associated with global warming, so setting an example on reducing carbon emissions actually saves money, Menzinger said.
Finding reliable, sustainable and credible ways to offset carbon emissions has proved to be a challenge for many.
Francis Sullivan, adviser on the environment at HSBC Holdings plc, said there was a “steep learning curve” in finding ways to reduce and offset the bank’s carbon emissions. HSBC wound up paying $750,000 last year to various environmental projects, including a clean energy project in India.
Swiss Re went with the Community Development Carbon Fund at the World Bank, a fund that invests in offsetting projects in developing countries, while Gore and others have worked with Native Energy, a program to build wind-generated power.
Chris Walker, who also works at Swiss Re in environmental and sustainability issues, says there is more attention being paid to accredit or otherwise affirm the credibility of projects that say they reduce carbon emissions.
Even Gore advised caution in finding worthy projects while speaking at a recent reception for his new book.
“It’s like anything in life,” Gore said. “You have to do it with integrity.”