Carbon Neutrality … fraud or fact? — riffing off Al Gore debate

The sound-machine created controversy over Al Gore’s home energy use has brought focus to an issue that merits focus. 

  • Are “Carbon Offsets” simply 21st century indulgences for assuaging the guilt of those living a life at odds with their belief structure (whether real or simply proclaimed) or do they have real meaning?

RELATED DISCUSSION: Inhofe’s Gotcha Moment — Absurdity of the Pledge, and the person calling for it …

As a brief background, Joel Makower over at Worldchanging  had a great discussion last June entitled Energy’s Three Rs: A Primer.  He took the environmental movements 3 Rs (reduce use, reuse, recycle) and adapted them for a sustainable discussion of energy:

  • Reduce energy use:  through efficiency and conservation.
  • Renewable power use: where possible, use renewable power.
  • Remedy for polluting power use: where not possible to use renewable power, remediate by “purchasing carbon offests”.

Well, Bill Hobbs here at Ecotality has hit Al Gore on all three fronts, arguing that his

  1. electrical (and natural gas) use is so high as to not reflect enough reduction (considering An Inconvenient Truth);
  2. renewable power power claims simply aren’t supportable; and,
  3. purchase of carbon offstes is simply a different way to put money in his pockets.

To try to address these:

1. RE:  Gore energy use:

I don’t know Gore’s home life but it is clear that the sound machine has exaggerated the situation. 

Should we compare a house in the highest energy per capita area of the country with the average nationwide? Should we compare a house with apartments? How do we factor in the office use, secret service presence, and other activities that add to the energy burden?  There are significant reasons to question how to analyze this but it is interesting to note that, per square foot, Gore’s electricity use (19.43 kwh per square foot) is lower than that of the region (19.83 kwh per square foot).  Yet, I suspect that there are reasonable steps to take to reduce the Gores’ energy use even further, but I don’t know and doubt many amid the deluge of comments does either.

But, Gore is attacked for hypocrisy in living his life. He does not advocate, as many have suggested, that Americans go back to a stone age. He advocates reducing power use, buying renewable power where possible, and the remediating.  To understand the first, it might be interesting to see how the power use at the Gore residence/offices/secret service facilities have changed over the years (controlling for office use, Secret Service, and other activity).  Going up, staying the same, or falling?  I don’t know the answer — anyone else got it?

2.  As for renewable power, there have been many claims that Gore isn’t doing much here, that he isn’t getting renewable power, including (for example) the USA Today OPED Gore isn’t quite as green as he’s led the world to believe (by Peter Schweitzer of the Hoover Institute) which stated that “according to public records, there is no evidence that Gore has signed up to use green energy in either of his large residences”. In fact, Gore is paying for 108 blocks of renewable power (roughly $432/month), which covers the entire electricity usage. Note that the TVA system is measured/validated by the Center for Resource Solutions. In fact, by paying the extra blocks, Gore does not magically only get wind or hydro or solar power, but is getting the mix of actual TVA production (which is heavily reliant on coal).  But, the green funds for green energy are meant to help spark increased renewable power production.

In addition, Gore has invested in solar power for the house.

3. Carbon Credits

To be honest, I don’t know enough about GIM, its investments, and the overall profit scheme to discuss Gore’s particular situation.

But, I have been discomfitted by the carbon credit schema. And, to the extent that I have ‘offset’, I have done so by donating money directly to audited/accountable organizations doing things like planting trees in tropical zones and putting up renewable energy systems.

Thus, I welcomed when, in mid-January, the non-profit Clean-Air, Cool Planet did a study of carbon offsets entitled  A Consumer’s Guide to Retail Carbon Offset Providers (note: pdf) which looked at 30 different offset providers. Patrick Kennedy had a good discussion of this back in mid-January.  In that, he cited the Daily Telegraph article Warning issued over frims that promise to fix your blot on the planet:

The report claims it is not possible to state categorically that buying any “carbon offset” as Tony Blair did grudgingly last week to counter the global warming potential of his family’s New Year break in Miami Beach will neutralise the damage that flying causes to the atmosphere …

A Government source privately described the burgeoning market in carbon offsets as “like the Wild West” full of cowboys.”

A further problem is establishing whether carbon credits have been sold more than once, because there is no register of what has already been done and crossed off the list.

Mark Kenber of the Climate Group, an independent British reviewer of the study, claimed people were buying carbon-saving credits that could have been sold before: “One must assume that if you can get away with it, someone probably is.”

Gives one great confidence, no? Now, the report identifies a number of “best practice” companies. These included:

  • The Oxford-based Climate Care, which turns chip-fat from Caribbean cruise liners into bio-diesel and offers efficient stoves to wood burning communities in Nicaragua.
  • The UK-based CarbonNeutral Company, formerly known as Future Forests. This has contracted for more than 800,000 tons of offsets and its portfolio consists of small-scale renewable energy projects, landfill gas collection, energy efficiency and reforestation projects.

and,

  • US-based Native Energy, the company Al Gore used to offset his flights to promote his global warming film, An Inconvenient Truth.

Note, this offset went to Native Energy which, as far as I am aware, is not part of the GIM organization/company. (From their website: “NativeEnergy is a privately held Native American energy company. … NativeEnergy helps you help build Native American, farmer-owned, community based renewable energy projects that create social, economic, and environmental benefits.”)

Now, if one is not taking steps to reduce one’s energy use and seeking to use renewable energy (at least somewhat), then offsets truly become like indulgences sold to absolve sinners of sin.  With those efforts (e.g., efficiency/conservation and investing in renewable power), the carbon credit market clearly is in the ‘buyer beware’ category … and reports like Clean-Air, Cool Planet’s enable the buyer to be aware when making this choice.

I, however, will continue my own efforts to make my personal (and otherwise) life more energy efficient (caulking, more insulation, CFL/LED lighting, more efficient appliances); work toward renewable power (including coming solar hot water, high-efficiency fireplace insert for biomass (supplemental) heating); and, well, when I remedy … it will come through actions that I can audit …

2 responses to “Carbon Neutrality … fraud or fact? — riffing off Al Gore debate

  1. It seems to me that the bottom line is that vice-president (VP) Gore wants to live the high life, while encouraging everyone else to live their life in a much more restrictive fashion. Then he tries to make amends by selling himself carbon offsets through his own company. The image VP Gore projects of himself is not one of a person who is concerned about man’s impact on global warming, but one of a person who is trying to scare the rest of the world into investing in his company. If he wants to entertain large numbers of people while remaining “carbon neutral,” he could always entertain at a country club and let THEM worry about being “carbon neutral.” This would be a much wiser approach for someone who wants to appear to be concerned about man’s impact on the environment. At any rate, there are much better ways of going about what the VP is trying to accomplish than the way he is going about it, if he wants to have any credibility among critical thinkers.

  2. Pingback: CEI: Truthiness, rather than truth, to destroy the future « Energy Smart

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