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Carbon Offsets: Gimmick or Cutting Edge?

November 26th, 2008 by skigreenguy | Filed under Ecotravel, How to Ski Green, Policy & Social Change.

Carbon offsetting as part of a “carbon neutral” lifestyle has gained some appeal and momentum mainly among consumers in western countries who are concerned about the potentially negative environmental effects of energy-intensive lifestyles. Carbon offsets enable individuals and businesses to reduce the CO2 emissions they are responsible for by offsetting, reducing or displacing the CO2 in another place, usually where it is more economical to do so.

Carbon offsets typically include renewable energy, energy efficiency and reforestation projects. Carbon offsets are popular with ski areas seeking to make up for some of the carbon emitted by their electrical usage, grooming and visitor vehicles. Ski resorts are big energy—and energy offset—users. But are these offset programs real or just marketing gimmicks?

An example of a successful offset program is at Snow Bowl, Middlebury College’s local ski hill. Partnering with the carbon offset provider NativeEnergy, Snow Bowl’s offset payment was invested  in a Sioux wind farm project in North Dakota and a family farm methane project in Pennsylvania. Although final plans haven’t been confirmed, it’s likely that this year the funds will be invested in a Vermont digester project. Snow Bowl will offset all emissions related to its diesel, gas, propane, B20, and electricity usage. In addition, NativeEnergy will also include in the offset figure compute an estimated amount of emissions produced by customer travel.

Because Middlebury has the Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest, the nation’s seventh building to earn the United States Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum status, it’s likely that Middlebury has both the funding and expertise to evaluate their “green” efforts.

Unlike Snow Bowl, most ski areas aren’t small privately held amenities populated by a few liberal elites who have the time, motivation and resources to research their local ski area.  Do the rest of us know if the offsets used by our favorite ski area really make any difference at all? Are providers legitimate? Do offsets purchase actually helps reduce global warming emissions?

Are Offsets Credible?

The short answer is maybe. While voluntary standards are evolving in Europe and the United States to ensure that a ton of carbon dioxide purchased is actually a ton of carbon dioxide avoided, the quality of the credits is based in part on the validation process and sophistication of the fund or development company. Some are good, others are not.

Tom Hinton, president and CEO of the American Consumer Council (ACC) says, “The problem is, it’s a new, emerging area. As a result, there is a lack of credible organizations trying to fill the demand for certification. Until you have a few other industries and nonprofit organizations step forward, consumers and companies run the risk of subscribing to a certification process that may not deliver all that it’s propped up to be.”

Fortunately, standards organizations are emerging right now. The Carbon Concierge has an eight criteria evaluation matrix for offset providers. A similar effort by Trexler Climate + Energy Services is A Consumer’s Guide to Retail Carbon Offsets in which 30 offset providers are rated on seven weighted criteria.  Ecobusinesslinks has a useful pricing study of offset providers. Finally, “A Consumer’s Guide to Retail Carbon-Offset Providers” by the environmental group Clean Air/Cool Planet. Clean Air/Cool Planet (which has some involvement in the business), gave decidedly mixed reviews to the field, selecting eight sellers of carbon offsets that it concluded were reasonably reliable. Depending on where you shop for carbon credits, avoiding the ton of carbon dioxide released by driving a mid-size car about 2,000 miles could cost $5 or $25. Government oversight of this industry is likely, particularly with the recent talk about a green recovery to the current economic crisis.

It seems that until standardized oversight is in place, investment in offset credits should be looked at more as conventional charity (presuming you check to be sure the projects are real) and less as something like a license to binge on heliskiing or private jet travel.

Indeed, some environmentalists find the carbon-neutral campaign a sign of the times — easy on the sacrifice and big on the consumerism. The New York Times Sunday Magazine quotes Michael R. Solomon from St. Joseph’s University who suggests that consumers are always going to gravitate toward a solution that requires less behavioral change (my bold). Carbon offset are a prime example of such convenient solutions.

By the way, the Carbon Concierge’s white paper reviewing the top scoring retail offset providers found that Snow Bowl’s offset provider, NativeEnergy, was the “most recommended” of the 14 providers evaluated. Looks like the folks at Middlebury did their homework.

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5 Responses to “Carbon Offsets: Gimmick or Cutting Edge?”

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