General Electric Co., a longtime target of environmentalists that is working to bolster its "green" image, launched a credit card Wednesday that gives users a chance to offset their greenhouse-gas emissions.
The new card, the GE Money Earth Rewards Platinum MasterCard, is being marketed as the nation's first to offer customers "rewards" that can go toward carbon emissions credits rather than more common perks such as cash-back payouts or airline miles.
A joint venture between GE and electric power company AES Corp. will use the credits to pay for projects that reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. (GE is the parent company of NBC/Universal, which is a partner in the joint venture that operates MSNBC.com.)
Both the card and the joint venture are part of GE's "Ecomagination" initiative, which the Fairfield, Conn.-based conglomerate launched two years ago to boost sales of environmentally friendly technology and cut carbon emissions.
During an event at The New York Academy of Sciences, GE executives said the card gives consumers an easy way to reduce their impact on the environment. But they stressed it should be seen as a "first step" toward a more ecologically conscious lifestyle.
"We don't want anyone to think this a 'get out of jail free' card," said Lorraine Bolsinger, vice president, GE ecomagination.
Card users will be able to automatically contribute up to 1 percent of their purchases toward emissions offsets. Customers will have the choice to donate all of their rewards or receive half in cash.
Credits redeemable each Earth Day
Rewards will accrue over the course of the year and can be redeemed for emissions credits each Earth Day, April 22. There will be no limit on the amount of credits customers can earn.
GE estimated that a customer who charges $25 would receive enough credit to offset the impact of running a typical refrigerator for a month, for example. Consumers would have to charge $750 per month each month to make up for the direct emissions they produce in a year.
The credits will be bought from GE AES Greenhouse Gas Services, a joint venture between AES and a division of GE which provides financing to energy companies. Greenhouse Gas Services is aiming to get rid of 10 million metric tons of greenhouse gases — which it says equals the emissions of 1.8 million cars — annually by 2010.
The joint venture will initially focus on capturing and removing methane gas from coal mines and landfills. A third party will verify the offsets, which must be used for projects that go beyond legal obligations or general industry practice. Greenhouse Gas Services will pay the verification costs.
"It sets a very high bar of quality we hope people will embrace," said Kevin Walsh, managing director for renewable energy at GE Energy Financial Services.
Other approaches abroad
Hans Verolme, director of World Wildlife Fund's global climate change program, said carbon-offset programs are useful in raising consumers' awareness about greenhouse-gas emissions.
But he said that capturing methane, as GE and AES plan to do, amounts to going after "low-hanging fruit" because it does not meet more stringent guidelines established by the WWF and other non-governmental organizations.
Netherlands-based Rabobank recently introduced a credit card in conjunction with the WWF that is based around this "gold standard." Barclays Bank PLC, a British bank, earlier this month launched a credit card of its own aimed at fighting climate change.
GE introduced its new card on the same day the U.S. Forest Service and the nonprofit National Forest Foundation announced a plan to let individuals or groups make charitable contributions to offset their carbon dioxide emissions. The money will be used to plant trees and do other work to improve national forests.
Bank of America Corp., the nation's largest retail bank, is planning to introduce an "eco-friendly" credit card soon. That card will let customers contribute to greenhouse gas reduction projects based on how much money they spend.