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Going Carbon-Neutral One Person At A Time
Vinay Gupta, 5 Jun 04

Greenfleet in Australia and Future Forests in the United Kingdom will plant trees for you to balance your carbon emissions. Along with wind-power offerings from regional power companies (for example Holy Cross in Colorado) it seems like almost any individual could go carbon neutral if they chose to, simply by buying trees and wind power units.

Is this the way we should approach global warming? Not by banging on the doors of governments, but by encouraging people to simply go carbon-neutral one by one?

Inspired by this thread at metafilter.

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It is very reasonable to "offset" your personal CO2 emissions with renewable energy investments and planting trees. But it would also be very wise to cut your use of fossil fuels as much as possible in the first place. There is only so much renewable energy out there right now, and there is a limited capacity for the biosphere to absorb carbon (and keep it out of the atmosphere for a long period of time).

First, cut your use of fossil fuels. I think the average American family can cut their use of fossil fuels by about 30-50% without too much trouble, given a few years to phase in investments like a new car (a hybrid, for example), new appliances (when you need to replace them anyway), insulation and weatherstripping and more efficient lighting. (We cut ours by about 50-60% with about three years of effort.)

Other things to watch, of course, are the things you buy. For example, it has been estimated that every pound of paper requiers about three pounds of CO2 to produce it and ship it to your local store. Also, imagine how much energy is used in producing some of the food you see in the supermarket?!

Then, try to offset your remaining emissions with renewables and tree planting. (Our local utility, in Madison, Wisconsin, has a wonderful green energy program. But other folks can invest in these other programs, like the one in Colorado.)

In the end, this makes a lot of sense to me. Maybe the USA won't be Kyoto compliant for a while (and even that only is a very small step in the right direction). But you can definitely make your household (or maybe your neighborhood?) more carbon neutral.

Posted by: Jon Foley on 5 Jun 04

And when you've done it there's this cool button making tool which you can use to produce a neato CO2 neutral button.

Posted by: Frank Quist on 5 Jun 04

Yeah but trees don't offset fossil fuels. They simply store it for a while. Fossil fuels are introducing new carbon while trees store it for a while, they eventually release it back so there is no "carbon neutral".. more like "carbon buffer".

I agree with Jon Foley's comment. By takeing measureable steps over time that have little impact on lifestyle it is possible to make huge changes. I recently bought a $37 device called a Kill A Watt which measures exact electric usage for everything in the house which I listed out and can now focus on the worst offenders first. Amazingly electric lightbulbs us a lot, as does my computer (#1 in the house, more than the frige).

Posted by: Stephen Balbach on 5 Jun 04

Hang on a minute. This doesn't make sense to me. It takes a fair amount of time to grow a tree last time I looked. I know there are trees which grow fast but it takes many years doesn't it?

In the meantime the CO2 is in the atmosphere having an impact today. Surely there is a relationship between the lag time that it will take for 'commissioned' trees 'buffering' CO2 emissions to grow and the impact our emissions will have in that lag time period?

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 6 Jun 04

To follow up.

Storing carbon in trees is essentially locking the carbon up for a few decades or a century or two. (How long does the average tree actually live?) Locking the carbon into the soil (as organic material) can make it last a little longer perhaps, maybe a few centuries -- depending on the local conditions.

But, in the end, there is a mismatch: we are burning ancient, geological forms of carbon (fossil fuels, which are about 250-300 million years old) and we're going to be stuck with them for a while. Temporary storage in the biosphere is extremely helpful, but not a "permanent" solution in the long run.

When thinking about this problem, I like to paraphrase Bill Clinton, "It's the emissions, stupid!"

Of course, one could argue that planting trees is probably a good idea anyway, and the carbon "buffer" it provides is a nice bonus!

Posted by: Jon Foley on 6 Jun 04

Yes, and programs like these don't really address the localized effects of pollution--such as illnesses and deaths caused by fine particle or mercury pollution.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 6 Jun 04



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