Every decade, it seems, environmental issues develop a slogan to help keep people on the right track. In the '70s, it was the Pitch-In slogan with the little man throwing his trash away. In the '80s, children were taught the three R's: reduce, reuse, recycle. By the '90s, animal rights causes were all the rage and "Save the Whales" was everywhere. The jury is still out for our current decade but the smart money is on "What Would Al Do?"
He has won an Oscar and a Nobel Prize for his work fighting global climate change and his film An Inconvenient Truth. But when the New York Times, USA TODAY and other publications around the nation reported the size of Al Gore's carbon footprint, many began to question the former vice president's true commitment to the environment.
New York Times reporter Gregg Easterbrook reported that Gore uses "20 times as much electricity and natural gas at his Tennessee house than the national average." Easterbrook went on to say, "Mr. Gore causes 377,000 pounds of greenhouse gases annually. That is roughly the annual carbon emission of 20 Hummers. Next time you see Mr. Gore wagging his finger about the energy sins of others, picture a caravan of 20 Hummers driving to the Academy Awards."
So what was Al to do? With the FoxNews drones trashing him, he couldn't have his own peeps at the New York Times knocking his hustle. Something had to be done. So to alleviate the guilt, Gore turned to the corporate cure-all fad known as Carbon Offsets. He invested the necessary funds into climate-curing initiatives to offset the carbon cost of his massive Tennessee home. The Gores received a refrigerator magnet and a publicly published label: They were now carbon neutral.
The use of carbon offsets as a means of corporate responsibility is a relatively new phenomenon based on an idea that is almost 20 years old. In 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen appeared before the U.S. Senate to warn of the consequences of a "greenhouse effect" that was going to eventually destroy the ozone layer.
One year later, a global power firm called AES invested $2 million in a forestry project in Guatemala in order to obtain what the firm referred to as "carbon credits." The company foresaw a future where large corporate entities would create a quid pro quo with Mother Nature to atone for its sins. They were well ahead of their time.
Now the carbon offset market is booming, with over 54 million corporate and consumer dollars spent last year, including programs for consumer airline miles, car exhaust and home energy use. But as the market begins to snowball, who is minding the store, making sure the money gets where it needs to?
Earlier this month a New England-based bipartisan nonprofit released a report entitled Getting to Zero: Defining Corporate Carbon Neutrality. The report calls the current carbon offset market "the wild west of corporate environmental causes" and calls for further oversight of the carbon credit marketplace. Their report issues a list of recommendations for companies claiming carbon neutrality, with issues ranging from transparency in determining carbon usage to instituting more natural practices, like recycling programs, beyond simply buying carbon credits.
But will these recommendations be upheld by large corporate entities interested in doing the right thing but not at the expense of productivity? In April, the Philadelphia Phillies announced that they were going green, introducing cutesy programs like green hats for the players and a photo-op-drawing robot named Phil the Can. The publicity stunts were in support of the Red Goes Green initiative, which committed the Phillies to 20 million kilowatt hours of green energy.
The move made the Phillies the only carbon neutral franchise in all of professional sports. With a building like Citizens Bank Park, just keeping the lights on can cause massive pollutants. The Phillies were praised by members of the EPA, the Department of Energy, Gov. Rendell, Mayor Nutter and members of Congress for leading Major League Baseball in a new direction. But when the dust settled, and the Phillies began to pay up, no one asked where the money was going.
"We committed to the offsets in March, we announced it in April and we just purchased the offsets in June," says Brian Mahoney, marketing representative for the Red Goes Green initiative, "and the question of where that money is going is something we still need to look into."
Mahoney says that the Phillies paid a premium to purchase offsets from Green-e, a third-party auditory group that guarantees the quality of their offsets through constant audits. Currently though, all Green-e has told the Phillies is that their offsets are going largely to biomass initiatives in Ohio and wind power projects in Texas.
Another Philadelphia institution, the Philadelphia Zoo, got into the offset game earlier this summer. The Footprints Program was introduced as a way to curb greenhouse gas emissions in a variety of ways. More comprehensive in scope than the average corporate offset package, Footprints includes sustainability efforts and educational programs to help Philly residents reduce their footprint through the use of public transportation and biofuels.
"In terms of becoming carbon neutral, there are so many things you can do to reduce your footprint," says Val Pecum, conservation programs manager at the Philadelphia Zoo, "and then offsetting the rest is kind of the idea."
The carbon offsets that the Zoo did purchase are being reinvested locally, through the Fairmount Park reforestation of Greenland Woods, an area of the park that has become barren. The carbon-sucking Philly Zoo forest begins planting this fall.
"In addition to sequestering carbon and helping the local wildlife," Pecum gushes, "this is something people can make a personal connection with because it is right here in our own backyard." So what's the verdict? Are carbon offsets a quick fix or a drop in the bucket? No one is sure. But one thing is certain: It's better than nothing.