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Greener Miles: Embedded Energy, Life-Cycle Assessments and Greenwashing
Alex Steffen, 13 May 06

How much of a difference do we really make when we take small, personal steps to protect the environment? That's been a subject of much debate around here recently. Just to throw a little biodiesel on the fire, WorldChanging reader Brad Stone writes in recommending his most recent column in Newsweek, Do Good By Doing Bad in which he lambastes Greener Miles, the new partnership between Ford and TerraPass, which will let SUV-owners offset the carbon they spew while driving the kids to the little league game in a 7,000-pound Ford Excursion:

Greener Miles allows customers to "offset" the environmental impact of their Ford automobiles by making online donations to projects that reduce greenhouse gasses. You no longer have to feel bad about driving that 13-miles-per-gallon Lincoln Navigator while the Arctic ice shelf melts beneath the paws of polar bears. At, SUV owners can sign up to pay some 22 cents a day to compensate for the 15,000 pounds of carbon dioxide that their fossil-fueled chariots belch into the atmosphere annually

Now, I'm of two minds here. On the one hand, given climate crisis realities, I think we ought to be encouraging everyone we can to think about how they can go climate neutral in their own lives. We have a couple hundred million Americans we need to get paying attention to their carbon footprints. TerraPass is a good company, and if they can get people moving in that direction, more (clean) power to them.

But on the other hand, we need to make sure that the efforts which get our praise reflect the reality of how much change is needed, immediately.

To do that, we need to look beyond the gas tank and think about the whole system which GreenerMiles may or may not be perpetuating. A pretty key concept in life-cycle analysis is embedded energy: the energy used to make a given thing, build the infrastructure that supports it, and finally dispose of it. While there is real debate about how much energy is embedded in the production of cars, it is clear that when you count in maintaining the infrastructure to support a completely auto-centric society, the ecological costs are profound and go way beyond the smog belching out any individual car's tailpipe.

As one of our goals ought to be encouraging people to become bright green consumers -- leveraging their personal actions to create systemic change towards sustainability -- we are rightly wary of fixes which make no real change in a profoundly broken system, but instead offer a band-aid which mitigates that part of the system closest to the consumer. Indeed, it is reasonable to ask whether such band-aid efforts aren't just a form of greenwashing. If Ford is serious about sustainability, let's see a plan to bring to the market closed-loop, non-toxic manufacturing of diesel-electric hypercars.; let's see Ford back climate labeling and Kyoto; better yet, let's see Ford strongly support efforts to promote smart growth, build transit and tougher emissions laws, like California's (which Ford is suing to stop).

Should we reject any action which doesn't get us all the way to one-planet living? Of course not. But we should require of our allies and would-be allies that the small steps they put forward are actually steps on a path which leads to a future we can live with.

Every time we say something like that, we get a ton of email wondering (sometimes with many rough Anglo-Saxon words, capital letters and exclamation points) if we aren't undermining the message that people can make a difference in building a more sustainable society. I think not. Rather, I think that when we support or stand silent when comparatively meaningless (perhaps even placebo) actions are offered up as a substitute for a bolder vision of change, we're selling out those people who are looking to us for answers.

We can build a bright green civilization. We don't have all of the tools and models we'll need ready yet, but with a green revolution we can invent them. We even know how to sell it, and how to enrich our economies in the process. But we'll never get the momentum to do that if people think that driving a nearly four-ton vehicle around on their errands is part of the solution.

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The vision is clear, and being communicated to hundreds or even thousands of WorldChanging readers. What comes next? How do you continue communicating this vision? Do you have an outreach plan? Just curious. Just asking aloud questions I've been asking myself, about how I can do more to help / promote a bright green future.

Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 13 May 06

Hey Stephen--

Yes, outreach is key; articulated vision, framed well and followed by achievable actions = essential.

How best to bring that forward is another question.

I don't have the answer yet, or I'd be sharing it. But I am mulling it over... I'd be very glad to hear anyone's ideas, inspirations, suggestions....

(And, by the way, worldchanging is currently read by hundreds of thousands of people every month, if that makes any difference.)

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 13 May 06

"Me and my ford are helping the planet".

Please, this is just a copout. If you are driving a gas guzzler, doesn't matter what you do in terms of donating money unless you donate serious money. The sums mentioned in this article are not serious.

Tranlsation: We need legislation from governments around the world to make green cars the financially viable future and gas guzzlers the "hole in the wallet" future.

But you've got to do *both* at *the same time" to make it work.

Posted by: Stephen Kellett on 13 May 06

The habitat in USA is 95% auto-centric by design (goulish but true) except for pockets like New York City and a few downtowns like Boston and Washington. Going naturally green "by design" (non-auto-centric) of urban communities is may be one step in the right direction. The example I sight is the "mixed use community" in Jersey city (originally the bowels of NJ) (Newport / Pavonia) that is only a decade old and thriving by any count. It is one commuter train stop from New York city. About a dozen major corporations were lured in with incentives; there are high rises for living and large shopping and gentrified dining and pubs around. You can live, work and play (in New York city) and the only reason you would need a car is to take a drive to the "country side". The reason it works is that New york city is accessible by train. Without city access, it can get pretty boring very soon I suppose. The area itself is financially thriving because of the long hours of sustained traffic for local businesses - 7 Am to 9 Pm.

The abstract question is could such mix use communities be built, a distance away, around rich cultural centers of the world with specific fast and convenient public transport to and from the community and the core cultural center? Jersey city Newport area is billed as the most successful mixed use community in the world in $ terms and I think it is inherently green - completely unintentional I am sure.


Posted by: Subbarao Seethamsetty on 13 May 06

Makes me think that Ford simply created the Greener Miles program to hide their guilt. It is a marketing ploy in green light! It doesnŽt take a genius to understand that what they are trying to foster here among consumers is to take a "cake and a diet coke" attitude! Like saying. "I can drive a Ford SUV that spews a huge amount of carbon in the environment, but wait a minute, I dont have to feel guilty about it because IŽm donating money to the Greener Miles program!

Posted by: Tuesday Gutierrez on 14 May 06

This behavior is not limited to individuals - plans in which developed countries pay developing countries to cut down their coal consumption to reduce carbon emissions or halt deforestation to preserve carbon sinks have been proposed (if not by anyone in power - something I have a hard time believing - then just by my classmates). Among the numerous problems with this idea is the one you raise in the essay: can it be enough? If the whole developing world suddenly ceases emitting carbon and removing carbon sinks with the developed world continuing on a business as usual path, can we reach stable atmospheric carbon concentrations?

Thanks again for framing these crucial thoughts in such eloquence.

Posted by: Jonathan Krones on 14 May 06

I would also encourage you and your readers to check out - which is a non-profit. In addition to funding carbon offset programs, they are also involved in helping to educate people about carbon's impact.

Posted by: Eric on 14 May 06

No, offsets won't deliver world peace, reverse climate change, or win the Nobel Prize. So, I guess unless it's perfect, we know-it-all enviros should diss it. And it's always good to diss the car companies; they single-handedly have brought the Earth to The End Of Life As We Know It.

Sheesh, give me a break. How 'bout when somebody does something good--anything good--we get off our self righteous asses and say "thanks." And then say, "I bet if we work together, we can do more good stuff."

I am so tired of the perfect getting in the way of the good.

Posted by: Dave Newport on 14 May 06

This ain't so much a case of "the perfect getting in the way of the good" as the lame getting in the way of reality. It don't need to be perfect, but it does need to work. SUVS with carbon get out of jail free cards ain't even close.

Posted by: No Thanks on 14 May 06

Thanks for the post, Alex. A huge, and growing, amount of embodied energy and the resources of society goes not only into the making and disposing of cars, but into building automobile infrastructure -- roads, highways, parking lots, etc. -- a cost that programs like "Greener Miles" doesn't account for. Here in California, the cost of building and maintaining auto infrastructure is sucking up larger and larger amounts of the state budget, while the the 'infrastructure deficits' continue to grow and congestion and the condition of the infrastructure continues to worsen. Also, while it is important to address carbon emissions on a global scale, the local environmental effects of the automobile -- air and water pollution, noise and congestion, degraded neighborhoods and streetscapes, public health impacts, loss of habitat, etc.-- aren't addressed by a program like Greener Miles.

Posted by: Tom Radulovich on 14 May 06

People like cars. It's kind of obvious, but I just want to draw attention to it for a second.

Look forward for a second to a future where somehow we got away with it: cities are re-engineered, decentralised power is common, carbon fuels are seen as toxic waste, efficiency is seen as a driver of the economy. Even in that scenario, where needing a car to drive to work could be seen as an unfortunate and expensive handicap, people will still like cars. They'll like the way the car feels taking a corner cleanly, or taking road trips driving all day, or the retro aesthetic of one radio per vehicle. That's going to include absurd vehicles like SUVs; freedom's like that.

To me that sort of choice is an important one, and I don't mind people making it at all - as long as they pay their own way. Driving a car because you want to feel like an extra in a Hunter S Thompson novel is fine as long as you're not putting Pacific islands underwater in the process.

So while the solution Ford has proposed, no doubt as part of their add-on sales program, is laughably small, the problem isn't really the principle, it's the effectiveness. Ford's program isn't in the "buying broccoli as a doughnut credit" column; it's more akin to doing exercise to offset that doughnut. The costing just seems to be 1 minute of running instead of an hour.

Posted by: Adam Burke on 14 May 06

The emergy analysis referenced is at odds with this analysis.

Automobiles: Manufacture vs. Use
Carnegie Mellon University, 1998

The study does not include hybrids, but does clearly shows that the bulk of energy use is in operation.

Posted by: Tom on 15 May 06

Dear Alex,

Can you please diversify your language, and try to talk about "greenness" and sustainability without saying the word "green" so much?

The bright reflective green paint you're applying is attractive but it also reflects the sun, and is thus making it difficult to see.


Posted by: matt on 16 May 06

We should pay more attention to the HABITAT of the automobile rather than focusing so much on whether or not cars themselves can be "green".

So far we have paved over 18 million acres of the United States - an area approximately equal to 53% of Wisconsin. Much of it was the richest, most productive land in the world. Most of it was paved in the last half-century.

Why? Because (we) Baby Boomers became utterly addicted to oil and cars.

All the advertising hype about “green” cars entirely misses the point. Even if every vehicle on the road was 100% “green”, that wouldn’t make alfalfa grow from asphalt or trees thrive in concrete. And you will never find a prairie-dog town at a traffic intersection!

We need to stop suffocating God's green earth under asphalt.

Posted by: Hans Noeldner on 17 May 06

I think that some people are sitting on the fence and if they can move by buying some offsets, more power to them. I prefer some action over no action.

Is the issue one that if we take partial measures, like letting off a little steam, we won't build up the pressure for a real paradigm shift? Like hoping for a really bad hurricane season to push public opinion over the top. (I'm guilty)

To my mind, nature is giving us plenty of pressure and as those folks who are paying for their carbon offsets are now sensitized to the issue. They will increasingly realize the inadequacy of their action and will take further steps. (just my opinion)

As to Ford, for crying out loud. They are doing more than GM and Chrysler combined, aren't they? (& I don't know anything about Hyundai, Toyota, or the others) The Ford River Rouge plant, the Cradle to Cradle concept car, the hybrids and the offsets are leading the industry. It’s not my crunchy granola fantasy but they’re moving in that direction.

The paradigm shift will happen, it will be too late to escape damage, but it will come.

Posted by: Jeffrey S. on 23 May 06

There is pretty clear evidence that far more resources (read energy) is used operating a car than is used in building a car, even though building anything as big as a car has pretty serious environmental impact. From this perspective, it might make sense to focus our attention on ways to change the car culture. And what is more American as a tool than taxes.

Alex Wilson of Environmental Building News, along with many others, has proposed what he calls a Freedom Tax on gasoline that would significantly alter the car-use equation, while providing much needed capital for the kinds of community/habitat changes discussed above.

take a look at to get further into this pretty straight forward idea.

Posted by: Jim Newman on 26 May 06

Ford is the same company that spent millions of dollars building a "green" factory in Rouge, Michigan where they build either Explorers or Expeditions. The factory has a living roof and was designed by William McDonough - one of the world's most prominent green architects. Ford is all about greenwashing, not environmental stewardship.

Soon GM and Ford will be asking the US government for a bailout because of the "foreign competition". They have made billions by building SUVs and now they can't compete with the foreign car makers who have been investing in hybrids and more fuel efficient engines. The Ford Escape Hybrid technology was bought from Toyota.

The old saying "What's good for GM is good for America" has not been true for many years. The stockholders have prospered while the environment and our health have paid a high price.

Posted by: Ed Brown on 28 May 06

Actually, with GM stock one third the value it was five years ago, I'd say the stockholders haven't done too well either.

Posted by: Adam Burke on 30 May 06



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