Monday, May 07, 2007

Carbon Offsets and Footprints

As carbon offsets become more popular (the Financial Times estimates it will be a muti-billion market in a few years), articles questioning the programs they fund are starting to appear:
Worse, reports of fraud and abuse are piling up. Most recently, an investigation by The Financial Times found that companies and individuals “rushing to go green have been spending millions on ‘carbon credit’ projects that yield few if any environmental benefits” (

The newspaper’s environment correspondent, Fiona Harvey, wrote of “widespread failings in the new markets for greenhouse gases, suggesting some organizations are paying for emissions reductions that do not take place.” In other cases, organizations profit by selling credits for environmental projects they would have undertaken anyway.

Francis Sullivan, the environment adviser for the banking giant HSBC, said: “The police, the fraud squad and trading standards need to be looking into this. Otherwise people will lose faith in it.”
I take the perspective that once we get past the initial growing pains, organizations with better oversight will emerge. My problem with offsets is that they continue to promote the idea that the size of your energy/environmental footprint is not the issue, you can always buy offsets and still maintain what could be an exorbitant lifestyle.

The term eco-mansion refers to energy efficient homes above 6,000 square feet. I applaud those who can afford to take advantage of the the green technologies available to homeowners -- from solar panels, smart sensors, and advanced building materials. Green industries need early adopters to nurture these nascent technologies. However, I still think that reducing ones footprint is just as important.

A reasonable rule-of-thumb would be a basic home for two people should be about 1,000 - 1,200 square feet, with an additional 300 square feet for each additional person, and a Maximum home size of 2,500 square feet. While I admire what Al Gore has done for the environment, I still feel he would be more effective if he did NOT have 10,000 square foot home. But let me emphasize that I am no purist: an eco-mansion is better than a conventional one.

I do wonder whether Gore and the Hollywood environmentalists realize that they could be more persuasive if they simply downsized. If we are in a crisis, why have an eco-mansion or your own private jet? Offsets are one thing, but leadership by example is more powerful. One can of course be completely off the grid, and continue to power a huge house. But if ones message is that we in the developed world need to lead by example, then some reduction in lifestyle is in order. I don't favor the legislative approach to reducing consumption. The more powerful method is to educate and convince people that a simpler lifestyle can be more fulfilling. High-profile celebrities would be great advocates for this message.

There will be a transition period: an economy so dependent on consumption will go through a painful adjustment period. For the record I hope to practice both: the use of offsets and scaling down of my lifestyle. It means less plane trips if possible, a smaller house (a necessity and not a choice in the SF Bay Area), less spending on non-essentials, and less driving.

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