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Climate, Conscience, and Atmospheric Carbon
Alan AtKisson, 31 Aug 07
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In my work, I have to fly. Both the NGO that I run, and the consultancy that I own, regularly send people around the planet, on planes powered by that ancient congealed plant matter we call "fossil fuel."

What about the carbon dioxide emissions associated with all that travel?

It has become more and more popular to "neutralize" carbon emissions by making a financial investment in renewable energy projects or tree-planting programs. Commercial services make this a simple matter of clicking on the web and giving a credit card number. International programs like the Clean Development Mechanism provide some guarantee that a specific program in renewable energy or reforestation has been evaluated and has met international standards.

But if you don't need the official sanctions, private "neutralization" solutions are possible. In my own case, thanks to a generous commitment from members of my family, some seventy acres of newly planted trees in South Carolina are, they tell me, absorbing the carbon dioxide emitted from my own travels associated with attempts to create a more sustainable world.

I'm grateful, but plagued with doubts. All such "solutions" to global warming can easily be criticized away. The trees in South Carolina would probably not have been planted if the forest that previously stood there had not been cut (thereby releasing their carbon). And the new trees will, in all likelihood, someday be cut as well.

And at the global level, it is hard to make an iron-clad case that an investment in ethanol production in Brazil is not contributing (through systemic knock-on effects) to rainforest depletion, or that building a windmill in India is actually "displacing" fossil fuel use that would otherwise have occurred there (it could just be adding to overall energy availability and thus consumption).

There are also difficult ethical questions involved: if you "pay" an African village not to use fossil fuel, and then put the benefits of that transaction into your own "carbon account," isn't that a new form of colonialism? Haven't you purchased one of that village's most valuable assets -- their rights to a fair share of global carbon emissions -- at an inappropriately low price, and removed it from their use forever? How is that different, ethically speaking, from buying historical artifacts that belong in a local museum?

As you can see, I remain deeply skeptical about many contemporary push-button schemes for neutralizing carbon emissions. One exception is the purchase, and retirement, of emission rights in an established market with a cap-and-trade system, like the one now operating in Europe. By buying the right to emissions that otherwise might have gone to a power company, and removing it permanently from the market (rather than trading it later), the total cap on permitted emissions is lowered. Theoretically, this forces somebody to do more efficiency or renewable energy development, while raising the price incentive overall -- and lowering total emissions.

But this neutralization method is hardly flawless. If the caps are set too high (as they were initially in Europe), or if adjustments to the caps do not keep up with the speed of clean technology development (some of which would have happened anyway, without the additional market incentives), then the real-world effect of retiring the rights will at be far less than supposed, and maybe nil.

In fact, the only sure way to cut carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use is not to burn the fossil fuel in the first place.

In my organizational life, we are increasing our use of tele- and videoconferencing, and we make extensive use of web and email, of course. When such technologies actually replace a face-to-face meeting or package delivery, then a real reduction has occurred. Otherwise, it's all theoretical -- and terribly difficult to verify.

And still the question keeps coming back, from staff and stakeholders alike: why aren't you neutralizing your carbon emissions?

The answer is simple: we are.

We have good reason to believe that all our work is resulting in greater awareness of the problem of climate change, and concrete action to reduce fossil fuel use and other contributors to greenhouse warming. In fact, this is one of our core objectives. It is a big part of the reason that we get on that plane in the first place. In my own case, if it were not for my lifelong commitment to do what I can to promote sustainable development, I would stay home.

When I go to make a presentation or advise an organization, I make the strongest case I possibly can for their heightened awareness and action on the issue of climate change. When a group I've visited subsequently sets a high goal for fossil fuel reduction, and starts implementing measures to achieve those goals, I know I've succeeded.

My friend Amory Lovins -- who has won two major awards this year for his work on energy efficiency, the Blue Planet Prize and the Volvo Environment Prize -- used to publish a regular accounting showing how much energy he had spent flying around to visit energy utilities and other companies, and how much verifiable energy savings they were expected to realize from implementing his advice. The numbers were always staggeringly in favor of Amory; his small investment of nonrenewable fossil fuel was resulting in major reductions in energy consumption.

This follows one of the principles for sustainable development once set by economist Herman Daly: invest your nonrenewable resources in renewable replacements, and do it before your access to the nonrenewables runs out.

In my own case, I can do no such accounting. It is impossible to know for sure how many barrels of oil or tons of coal did not get burned because I nudged a group in the sustainable direction. Even Amory, who deals in joules and megawatts, stopped that counting exercise long ago.

And on the ethical side, especially when I am working for an NGO -- where the funds are hard to come by and must be squeezed, reluctantly, out of the mainstream economy's vast floods of carbon-intensive production and consumption -- it makes no sense to further stress their fragile budgets with an additional, voluntary carbon tax. Yes, in the current climate movement, being "carbon neutral" sends an important "walking our talk" message; but the message is also meaningless if it is sitting on a less-than-firm foundation in terms of real world impact. And wouldn't that money more effectively put to use by the NGO itself, especially when its work is dedicated to (among other sustainability issues) reducing humanity's stress on the climate system?

Either we believe that the work of activists and change agents to move the world in a better direction has a real world impact, and has good multiplier effects, or we don't. If we believe that -- and I do, based on years of watching such change happen -- then money for carbon offsets is better off left in the budgets of the organizations who are working for the change.

Despite all the foregoing, I do make it a matter of policy to offset my carbon emissions when working for larger organizations in the private or public sector. But I see this as a matter of conscience, first and foremost, and not an accounting exercise. I don't believe that a few dollars can, or should, equal a certain number carbon dioxide molecules. The issue is far more complex. Shouldn't we also be paying to support the relocation of millions of Bangladeshis, for example, who must adapt to high sea level in any case? If we did a real and full accounting of the cost of our carbon emissions, the price would be far higher than those two- and three-figure package deals you see on the web.

Instead, I make significantly larger donations to organizations whose impact on climate, and sustainability generally, I strongly believe in. I think of this as my "climate conscience fund." I do as much as I can, and challenge myself to do more, and encourage others to do the same.

And as much as I can, I just stay home.

Alan AtKisson is a founding contributor to Worldchanging.

Image: Manchester State Forest, South Carolina. Credit: flickr/concubine

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Any thoughts specifically about Terrapass? I love the concept in general, but wonder how viable offsets can be when they're a voluntary mechanism. Also, I can imagine some scandal about the offset work not really taking place and killing the entire business model. Feels to me like it's on pretty shaky ground.

Learning more about Sustainable Living at

Posted by: Nicholas on 1 Sep 07

Thanks for this exploration Alan. I've gone through similar thinking myself. I often wonder about schemes that require voluntary action for extra cost - ie if they can lead to widespread systemic change.

We don't carbon offset, instead try to be more effective in other ways, reduce footprint and support charities that do on the ground work for the environment or extreme poverty. Also put money into ethical investments eg solar as figure that sends an incentive that influences the system.

Nitpicking: When talkng to others, I'd be wary of calling it a conscience fund because so-called 'greenies' often get attacked for being priveleged/righteous urbanites who are only alleviating their own guilt and judging others, ie hypocrits who don't want to change their lifestyle but attempt to consume their way to environmentalism. I know you're aware of all that!! I might start to use a label too, instead, a label like a fund for climate change or alternative offset/compensation fund (or many alternatives for a label).

Posted by: Janelle on 2 Sep 07

Alan, coincidentally I was thinking to write a column or post on just this subject. I've been avoiding travel, and I'm increasingly skeptical of offsetting schemes. On the other hand, staying home is effective only if sufficient numbers of us make that choice - enough so that the numbers of flights are reduced.

One promising interim step: the potential use of GPS instead of radar for air traffic control. Many favor an overhaul of the air traffic control system to make it GPS-based, and the industry and FAA are already going there. Evidently this will result in more direct routing, therefore shorter flights, therefore reduced fuel consumption and carbon spew.

Reference: Air Traffic Control System Gets Overhaul, NPR,

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 3 Sep 07



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