The Consumer Electronics Show now underway is a tech Bacchanal that this year is drawing some 140,000 people to Las Vegas. In years past, CES organizers might have touted the outsized consumption that accompanies the instant creation of a mid-size city. These days that would be ecologically incorrect, of course, and CES stresses that the 20,310 tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide conference-goers will generate will be completely neutralized through the purchase of carbon offsets from the non-profit Carbonfund.org.
“CarbonFund will invest in energy efficiency, renewable energy and reforestation projects to offset the emissions created by every inch of CES space, ” reads an e-mail from a CES public relations firm that landed in Green Wombat’s in-box on Monday, “all show freight, the shuttle buses and 600,000 hotel rooms will be offset via investments, (In fact, CES will be the largest carbon neutral trade show EVER!)”
The cost of the CES carbon tax: $108,000. No, there’s not a zero or three missing from that number. For the price of a Tesla Roadster and change, CES is cleansing the collective environmental sins of 140,000 people. Without wading into the controversial arena of carbon offsets or questioning the good intentions of CES’ organizers, that number begs an obvious question: If neutralizing a looming global catastrophe comes so cheap, wouldn’t have Bill and Melinda Gates just have written a check by now?
Unfortunately, when it comes to greenhouse gases, what happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas. The very real CO2 emissions from those 140,000 people now gridlocking the Strip — think of all those idling taxis alone — will enter the atmosphere in real time. Worse, much of the electricity for CES is being generated by a 42-year-old coal-fired power plant north of Las Vegas that was identified in a recent report on utility emissions as the nation’s worst carbon polluter.
Those emissions will in no way be immediately offset by the purchased carbon credits. The money will fund environmentally worthwhile projects but it may be years — or decades in the case of reforestation – before they actually begin having an impact on greenhouse gas emissions. According to Carbonfund.org’s Web site, CES’ money will be invested in such things as buying renewable energy certificates from wind farms and planting trees in Nicaragua and Hungary.
CarbonFund is also letting conference-goers offset the considerable CO2 emitted by jets ferrying more than a hundred thousand people into Las Vegas. That’s also a bargain: The bill for the six Fortune reporters who flew into town for CES from New York and San Francisco comes to a grand total of $23.81. At that price, you almost feel guilty about paying so little to not to feel guilty about your contribution to global warming.
CES also has taken such environmentally friendly steps as using biodegradable food utensils and recycled paper and laying down recycled carpet in an exhibit hall. But there’s no getting around the fact that the confab is held in what is perhaps the United States’ most unsustainable city, whose unchecked sprawl across the Mojave Desert makes it an ecological time bomb as temperatures rise and water tables fall.
Relocating the event to New York, Boston, San Francisco or another walkable, mass-transit, eco-oriented city would send a message that CES is serious about going green. Of course, it’ll snow on the Strip in July before that happens. But for CES 2009, why not ditch the carbon offsets and use the money to buy a fleet of bicycles instead of clogging the streets with carbon-spewing taxis. It won’t neutralize CES’ greenhouse gas emissions but it would actually reduce them where it counts.