Is 'Carbon Neutral' Good Enough?

futurelab default header

by: Joel Makower

The bar on climate change keeps rising, at least among a handful of companies seeking to be leaders in this arena. The announcements have been steady of late, with more and more companies claiming some kind of carbon neutrality.

In just the three weeks since New Year’s:

  • U.K. retail giant Marks & Spencer announced a plan that will lead to the company becoming carbon neutral by 2012.  
  • introduced Earthforce, an initiative to create a carbon neutral in 2007.  
  • Dell Computer announced a carbon-neutral initiative that plants trees for customers to offset the carbon impact of electricity used to power their computers.  
  • Pacific Gas & Electric announced that it would use biodiesel made from soybean oil, along with solar energy and carbon credits, to render Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s re-inauguration celebration carbon neutral.  
  • A new exclusively business class British airline, Silverjet, was launched, saying it be the world’s first carbon neutral airline, including a mandatory carbon contribution within its fares to offset its emissions.  
  • Package delivery company DHL announced that it would be the first logistics company to offer carbon-neutral delivery.  
  • The SXSW music and film festival said that this year’s event would be carbon neutral.  
  • Just today, TerraPass announced the "world’s first carbon balanced retail product."  

What, in Al Gore’s name, is going on here? Has the whole world gone carbon crazy?

Well, yes . . . and no.

The phrase — which, as everyone by now knows, was last year’s Word of the Year — is rapidly becoming a minimum expectation of companies, concerts, conferences, celebrations, and other conclaves. That seems like good news, in that climate awareness and action have hit a new level, including recognition by some of the world’s largest companies. (January’s rush of carbon-neutral news, of course, piles atop the many companies and other organizations that previously had made some kind of commitment.)

But what, exactly, does "carbon neutral" mean? There’s no viable definition — at least none being used by these myriad organizations. In my recent Google News search on the term, I found a wide variety of ways the term was being used, and more than a few questionable claims. (Can one really fly carbon neutral on company jets, even if it’s "more affordable than you think"?) Beyond that are questions about how companies are achieving their carbon neutrality — not all commercial offsets are equal, as I’ve previously noted.

I’m concerned about all this — and so should companies that have made, or are thinking of making, some kind of carbon-neutral claim. For starters, as such claims continue to grow in popularity, their value will diminish — yet another me-too action for all but a handful of companies. At best, carbon neutral will be seen as a de facto requirement, no longer be newsworthy outside the company itself.

That’s okay. But beyond that is a bigger concern: that carbon neutrality could be seen as a cover-up for real action. As such, there would be a backlash against companies making carbon-neutral claims without having taken the appropriate precursory steps to maximize their energy efficiency and use the highest percentage possible of energy derived from clean, renewable resources. As I’ve previously suggested:

buying offsets for an energy-wasteful home or business and calling it environmentally responsible is akin to buying a Diet Coke to go with your double bacon cheeseburger — and calling it a weight-loss program. Efficiency (and calorie reduction!) comes first.

Signs of the backlash already are coming. Earlier this month, the Christian Science Monitor asked, Do carbon offsets live up to their promise? It explained:

The problem: No current certification or monitoring system has any teeth, and there is no easy way to confirm that offsetting companies are doing what they promise. Now, various organizations are scrambling to provide standards for what experts call a fragmented market with a product of drastically varying quality.

The question asked by the Monitor isn’t going away any time soon, and companies and others seeking to claim carbon neutrality would do well to examine the bigger picture: what, besides "going carbon neutral," are you doing to minimize your climate footprint? The answer should include a wide range of energy-efficiency measures — from your facilities, to employee commuting and business travel, to the full range of things your company buys and does. Lacking a good understanding of that — and, hence, a good answer to the question above — could undermine your organization’s claims, perhaps even garner publicity you weren’t seeking.

The grilling you get may not be as easy-going as the one received last month by Jeffrey Swartz, CEO of Timberland, when he was interviewed by Stephen Colbert on "The Colbert Report." Colbert admonished Swartz:

"Carbon neutral sounds wishy-washy. You should be pro-carbon or anti-carbon. Carbon neutral sounds like Switzerland. Take a stand!"

Take a stand, indeed. And make sure it’s sitting on solid ground.

Original Post: