Curse the Darkness, or Light a Candle

Ford Motor Company and TerraPass today announced that they have created a partnership to “market TerraPass-branded carbon offsets to all drivers of Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury cars and trucks.” This essentially allows any purchasers of these vehicles to offset the amount of carbon dioxide emissions they create in a year’s time with investment in clean fuel technologies.

Our local electric company, the Long Island Power Authority, has offered its customers the equivalent of powering their houses with 100% wind energy through NewWind Energy, or with other clean-energy alternatives including low-impact hydroelectric. While the “grid is the grid,” and we can’t have 100% wind energy piped directly to our house, what we’re doing is telling LIPA that we want the equivalent amount of electricity that our home uses to be put into the grid from clean/renewable energy sources. Since clean-energy electricity currently costs more to generate than dirty-energy electricity, LIPA charges the standard rate plus a certain per-kilowatt surcharge depending on whether all your home’s power will come from 100% wind energy (surcharge is 2.5c/kWh) or from a combination of 60% wind energy and 40% small hydroelectric (surcharge is 1.3c/kWh). LIPA customers also have an option of only selecting that 50% of their home’s energy come from clean sources. Chances are, your local electric company offers something similar. The important thing is to make sure your local utility’s offerings are certified through an agency like Environmental Resources Trust, Inc., a non-profit organization that verifies the utility is purchasing the clean energy it has contracted to purchase on behalf of its customers.

TerraPass goes about offering clean energy in a different manner, by purchasing “carbon credits” from clean energy facilities and by investing in the building of such facilities. If you’re not familiar with carbon credits, here’s an explanation from Iowa State.

Of course, it’s easy to suggest this whole process does nothing but allow people who drive Hummers to buy their way out of guilt, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Carbon offsetting is something that many people can do now to help lessen their own footprint on the environment, and it’s also a concept based in sound logic. It’s easy to just say that offsetting your own carbon output might not make a difference, but I urge you to check out this article at that discusses “Stabilization Wedges.” The article starts as follows:

Far too often, discussions of efforts to mitigate the worst effects of global warming bog down under an argument that is simultaneously factual and irrelevant: there’s no single solution. Solar power (or wind, or nuclear, or sonofusion) is not going to be sufficient to replace all coal and oil use. Efficiency won’t improve fast enough. Sequestration can’t bury enough CO2. These are all true, but only in isolation. The solution that will work comes not as a single bolt from the blue, but from a combination of multiple, varied efforts.

Princeton’s Robert Socolow has captured this beautifully in a concept he calls “stabilization wedges.”

With stabilization wedges, a multitude of projects, from efficiency to de-carbonization to sequestration and more, combine to reduce overall carbon emissions, a task that at times can seem impossible. Individually, the wedges are difficult but achievable. As Scolow is quoted by the Economist, this approach “decomposes a heroic challenge (eliminating the emissions in the stabilisation triangle) into a limited set of merely monumental tasks.”

There is also an excellent Flash presentation on the concept, which clearly shows that CO2 offset is real, that it works, and that it could significantly stop the dramatic worldwide increases of CO2 emissions year-to-year.

That said, some people still cling to the “buying our way” idea. When the Ford/TerraPass deal was announced on the TerraPass blog, the first reader comment appended to the press release was this:

This is an interesting way to monetize a combination of guilt and complacency. I suggest terrapass expand their business model to include offsets for other things people feel bad about but are unwilling to change. Obvious candidates are spouse and child abuse (offset by donations to social service agencies, shelters, etc) and crimes such as murder and assault (offset by donations that increase police forces).

That’s a rather simplistic view, and one that discounts real people trying to do small things to help out. The TerraPass response was as follows:

Rsomers – I think we’ve heard this tune before, but we never get tired of sticking up for carbon offsets, which we think are one important tool for addressing climate change, along with greater conservation, renewable energy, and a host of strategies.

This has been said better elsewhere, but there is no single solution to global warming. The notion of stabilzation wedges is one of the more useful frameworks we have for breaking the problem into achievable steps. No credible expert seems to share your view that a little belt-tightening is all we need.

From the earth’s point of view, a pound of carbon dioxide is a pound of carbon dioxide, whether it comes out of a Hummer, a hybrid, a cow, or a volcano. Along with conservation, buying a TerraPass is one tangible thing people can do to lower carbon dioxide emissions today.

It’s easy to say we should all stop driving, we should all take mass transit, we should all be using solar power, etc. Bush in his energy speech the other day suggested if we don’t like gas prices, we should buy hybrid cars. Easy, right? Not so much. I think it’s important to do what we can as individuals, but it’s also important to push our representatives to create POLICY that will get us going in the right direction. The current White House is obviously not interested in doing that (starting with Kyoto, and ending with the oil companies creating the country’s energy policy), so we’re on our own for the next few years anyway.

So I bought a TerraPass Utility for the wife’s Subaru Forester, and a TerraPass Performance for my MazdaSpeed6, and our house will continue to use wind-generated electricity probably indefinitely. For right now, it’s the very least I can do, and I challenge everyone reading this to check out the articles linked above (so you’ll know what you’re investing in is making a real difference) and do the same. And by all means, if you’re in the market for a new boiler/furnace, and can afford a geothermal heating system, no no could ever accuse you of being a right-wing anti-environmentalist.

Carbon offsetting and purchasing clean-energy electricity not only helps curb greenhouse emissions in a very real and concrete way, but it is also using your dollars to send a message (as my wife correctly says about all the organic food she buys at a higher cost than standard supermarket meats and vegetables — have you noticed all the new organic products now being offered by Kraft, Frito-Lay, etc.?) — you’re telling the corporations that manufacture our cars and that generate our power that you want them to make environmentally-sound choices on your behalf. And if there’s one thing corporations listen to, it’s the consumer dollar. It’s no substitute for electing responsible leaders, but it is another effective way to light a candle for change at a time when it seems as if politicians and pundits are all busy pointing fingers at each other and cursing the darkness.

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