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10 trees for $6, or some thoughts on carbon neutrality

I was talking to a friend yesterday who runs a major annual conference. He mentioned that the conference had made the decision to go “carbon neutral” and was purchasing carbon offset credits to compensate for the travel of speakers and attendees to the event. Admirable – and one of dozens of admirable things this particular conference organizer does to improve his event – but it got me wondering about the mechanics of carbon neutrality.

My friend is not alone – Reuters has a story today about efforts by Al Gore, the World Cup and the World Bank to go carbon neutral. And the Globe and Mail has a somewhat skeptical story about carbon credits to offset auto emissions, which come complete with bumper stickers so you can smugly demonstrate your envi cred to fellow drivers.

I travel too much. And I acknowledge that air travel has an adverse impact on the environment, perhaps a disproportionately negative impact given the apparent effect of jet contrails on global warming. And I’m willing to do something… I’m just not quite sure what.

There are half a dozen businesses that will happily accept a check from me to offset my jet-setting lifestyle. Tami Bond at UIUC has an excellent page linking to some of the available options. Taking as a starting point a trip I’m taking in a few weeks to South Korea, I thought I’d figure out how much it would cost for me to assuage my conscience and make Al Gore proud of me.

Turns out it’s harder than you’d think to figure this out. As the Reuters story observes, there’s no single standard for determining CO2 produced, and variable prices for CO2 offset credits. The World Cup is using “certified emission reductions”, which purchase shares in alternative energy projects in the developing world, offsetting CO2 production by investing in production of clean power – these credits come priced at almost $13 per ton of CO2 produced. But not all credits sponsor power generation – CarbonNeutral.com offers three “portfolios” of offsets, ranging from investments in wind power to planting of forests to compensate for the CO2 I’m emitting.

Just how much CO2 will I generate going to and from Inchon airport? CO2.org puts the bill at 3.3 tonsmyclimate ups my bill to 4.8 tons because I’m flying business class (no, I’m not paying for the ticket.) Let’s call it an even five tons, to cover my drive to the airport as well, as well as the hot air I’ll spew once I’m on stage. Whadda I owe?

Anywhere from $25 to $92.30, depending on who you ask. EcoBusinessLinks has a great price survey that shows prices from $5.50 to $30 a ton from a variety of companies. That’s an awfully broad range, suggesting a pretty inefficient market… In truth, what’s going on is that you’re paying marketing and administration costs for the organizations, as well as buying carbon credits… not to mention the certificate wrapped in a cream folder with red ribbon as well as a recycled leather luggage tag that CarbonNeutral provides.

The Globe and Mail story argues that some of these carbon offset firms spend 75% of their funds collected on overhead, and less than 25% on purchasing credits. That sounds right – if the cheapest folks like CarbonFund – which offers credits at $5.50 a ton or $99 to make me guilt-free for a year aren’t defrauding folks, it suggests that some of the folks charging $20+ a ton just might be…

But I’m a DIY sort of guy. Since many of these credits claim to be planting trees, and since several sites suggest that I need one adult tree to offset a ton of emitted CO2, one way to think about my flight’s impact is that I should plant 5 trees… or, more accurately, enough trees to ensure that five survive to adulthood. I’ve got land. I’ve got a shovel. Strathmeyer Forests will sell me 2-year old Scotch Pine seedlings for $31 for 50. Assume half survive to adulthood – are fifty trees planted by me a better bet than sending $90 to a charity in the UK? Does the fact that I pay $6 for ten seedlings make me more or less responsible than anyone getting the luggage tags and cream-colored certificates?

In other words, is this a worthwhile way to get people to think about their personal impact on the environment, or is it a scam?

I get that NGOs use selling techniques like this to make charitable donations more concrete – when I give $120 to Heifer International to buy a sheep for a poor family, I understand that they don’t take a sheep from their warehouse, put it on a plane and DHL it to Nepal. (At least I hope they don’t. I’d need to buy carbon credits for the sheep as well.) I contribute money, they take a cut for administrative expenses, then funnel the money to local markets.

Would it make more sense, though, to have this sort of impact with fewer intermediaries? Would I be better off buying sheep and goats when I travel and giving them away, or planting my own trees to offset my carbon and my guilt? Or does that miss the point that organizations like this are trying to create a movement and, to succeed, need to market, advertise and, in general, produce cream colored folders and recycled leather luggage tags?

10 thoughts on “10 trees for $6, or some thoughts on carbon neutrality”

  1. Ethan,
    Not an expert, but I wrote an article last year about TerraPass and other places offering carbon offsets. I interviewed people at Climate Action Network in Brussels, and I remember them saying that planting trees is not efficient enough. Sure, trees eat co2, but it is better to reduce the original emissions (by, for example, supporting wind power or buying and retiring carbon credits).
    Good luck
    Sven Cahling

  2. I remember one example from my econ 101 class (not counting the story about the prof who left his college a legacy on condition he was embalmed, seated in a glass case, and wheeled into department board meetings) — that it’s cheaper to grow tomatoes in California, process them in Toronto and ship them to Guyamas than to make salsa locally in Mexico. It may no longer be current, but the pint it illustrated is, that shipping and travel are underpriced, in part because we don’t factor in environmental costs.

    So if some of these folks can sell this idea, that environmental costs exist, maybe the effort has value, and there’s some legitimacy to adding a cover charge for it. I’d rather plant trees myself, maybe hemlocks or blue spruce or resistant chestnuts or butternuts. I might need to get a border collie to keep the deer from eating the saplings, too… and something to keep the woody edelgids from eating them.

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  4. Some really good thoughts here on issues we struggle with everyday (how can we price this so we can sustain ourselves and do some good, raise awareness, etc).

    On the issue of trees, most climate scientists view deforestation as a cause of climate change, not a solution. The reality is we have about 10 years to dramatically change the way we produce energy — buyers of carbon offsets should be looking for clean energy in their projects (IMHO).

    Finally, if readers want more info, there is a great and long article at Salon that is highly informative and balanced:


    (behind ad-wall)

    Disclosure: I run TerraPass

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  6. Great thoughts by all. But let’s not overlook the different kinds of carbon. We can be “carbon neutral” burning wood, for example, as long as trees are being replaced at the same rate they are being burned. But we cannot be truly “carbon neutral” burning fossil fuels like oil because we cannot replace them in the same form and location. Any carbon released from under the earth’s surface, like by burning gasoline, adds to the carbon in play in our environment. This carbon becomes essentially a permanent and perpetual problem- unless we ever find a practical way to stuff it back under the earth, which is not going to happen any day soon.

  7. This gotta solve out.A way has to be found.You cant just say that we are not going to find a practical way is not the right thing to say.belive that nothing is impossible in this world if we have the will power.Planting trees should be promoted in a big way. It pays in the long run. Trees are the only things that can save the world now and sustain life. I came across this site. Just wanted to share it. It’s on an organization that is dedicated to planting trees along Houston’s streets and freeways. I got the link from this site. It’s a sure Check for all you people http://www.dickweekley.com/affiliations.html

  8. A wonderful old tree has just been cut down on a roundabout near the British Embassy High Commission in the suburb of cantonments in Accra-centuries old, it stood in the middle of the roundabout and provided both beauty and shade.

    Can any one give use any information on this tree? We are a group of artists considering holding a tree funeral on the site in the near future, to publicize the indiscriminate cutting down of trees in Accra’s suburbs.

    We require any information you consider useful asap and would be highly grateful,

    Foundation Contemporary Art



  9. The scepticism about rouge used carbon salesmen is appropriate. However, it is clear that quality carbon offsets can be beneficial to the planet particularly if the offsets are for greenhouse emissions that have no optional greenhouse reduction strategy. A case in point is air travel. If you do travel by air then it is appropriate to offset the emissions. For this reason Uncook carbon offset have been designed as a quality product with highly additional projects administered through the respected Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme. See http://www.uncook.com for more information.

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