Archive for the ‘carbon offsets’ Category


photo: Todd Woody

With the U.S. House of Representatives set to vote on the Waxman-Markey climate change bill this week, a report issued Thursday predicts the American Clean Energy and Security Act will create a huge market in carbon offset projects like reforestation.

In its current form, the legislation allows companies to comply with a cap on greenhouse gas emissions in part by purchasing carbon offset credits generated by domestic and international projects that reduce CO2 — such as capturing methane gas leaking from landfills. According to an analysis by research firm New Energy Finance, demand — for up to 5.7 billion tons of offsets — will far outstrip supply, with domestic projects contributing fewer than 30% of the offsets.

“Waxman-Markey will induce cumulative production…of offsets until 2020 to satisfy demand for reductions,” wrote the report’s authors. “We estimate that Waxman-Markey’s targets and lenient offset limits will create high levels of offset project development – both domestic and international.”

In other words, U.S. climate change legislation could goose a global market for offsets. In the U.S. alone, New Energy Finance estimates that the offset market will grow 27-fold by 2015, becoming a $46.7 billion business by 2020.

Some environmentalists have slammed Waxman-Markey for its generous use of offsets, arguing that U.S. companies could actually increase their carbon pollution while meeting the cap by buying other people’s emissions reductions. Relying on overseas projects to supply the majority of offsets also raises questions about how those efforts will be verified and overseen, especially if a carbon boom develops.

On the plus side, New Energy Finance expects tree projects to “play a pivotal role” in the offset market, which could slow the rapid rate of deforestation afflicting the planet.

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Green Wombat often highlights high tech when it comes to tackling global warming and energy independence. But a new study from the University of California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory shows that simply installing white roofs on homes and commercial buildings – to reflect the sun’s rays rather than absorb them – can reduce air-conditioning costs by 20% and could save $1 billion a year in energy outlays in the United States.

Switch to cool sidewalks and roads and the savings rise to $2 billion annually, according to the study by scientists Hashem Akbari and Surabi Menon and California Energy Commissioner Art Rosenfeld to be published in the journal Climate Change.

The scientists calculated that a global white roofs and roads effort would offset 44 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, or more than a year’s worth of carbon, and help stablize future C02 emission increases.

“The 44 Gt CO2-equivalent offset potential for cool roofs and cool pavements would counteract
the effect of the growth in CO2-equivalent emission rates for 11 years,” according to the authors.

Such emission reductions, of course, can be securitized into tradable carbon credits, which the study estimates would be worth $1.1 trillion. Regulated carbon market exist in places like Europe but securities based on cool roofs have not yet been created.

A global cool roofs agreement could avoid the pitfalls of Kyoto-style accords, the scientists note.  “Installing cool roofs and cool pavements in cities worldwide does not need delicate negotiations between nations in terms of curbing each country’s CO2 emission rates.”

It’s one of those low-tech, commonsense solutions to both energy use and global warming – one used for thousands of years in the regions like the Mediterranean; those picturesque villages overlooking the sea are white-washed for a reason.

In California, commercial buildings with flat roofs have been required to cool it since 2005. But one of the biggest hurdles in the U.S. to doing the white thing may be homeowner associations that dictate everything from the color of your mailbox to where you place your rubbish bin. The vast majority of homes in California either have standard black shingle roofs or Spanish-style red tiles. A proposal to paint those roofs white will likely incite architectural outrage.

But there’s another, albeit much more expensive solution, to hot roofs: Cover them with solar panels.

photo: California Energy Commission

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virgin-galactic-spaceshiptwo-feather-1.jpgIt is an article of faith these days that any company worth its public relations budget must proclaim loudly and frequently its good green intentions. So it was rather refreshing to hear one of Richard Branson’s top lieutenants – Will Whitehorn, chief of Virgin Galactic – cast his company’s enviro-friendly initiatives as strictly business.

“We’re not doing this to be environmentally kosher,” declares Whitehorn, referring to Virgin’s efforts to develop greenhouse-gas free biofuels for its jets and forthcoming spaceship, “we’re doing this to ensure our company’s survival.”

The occasion for Whitehorn’s remarks was one of those “green salons” that have become popular in San Francisco of late. You know, gather a group of so-called thought-leaders – executives, environmentalists, venture capitalists, journalists – in a chi-chi restaurant and let the ideas and sauvignon blanc flow. Easy enough to skewer, particularly when the well-compensated are dining on ahi tuna skewers, but you never know where the conversation will go, and in this case it strayed interestingly off-topic. The subject du jour was a white paper on corporate greenwashing from Bite Communications, the public relations firm that organized the recent lunch. Among those on hand were Whitehorn and execs from Chinese solar panel maker Suntech (STP), fuel-cell maker Bloom Energy, utility PG&E (PCG), and VantagePoint Venture Partners, investor in electric car startup Tesla Motors and solar power plant builder BrightSource Energy.

Whitehorn held center court, tracing Virgin’s trip down the green path a decade ago when the company forecast a dramatic rise in oil prices and tried to gauge the impact on its airline and new railway business. As a result, he says, Virgin spent big bucks on energy-efficient locomotives to hedge against future fuel cost spikes.

“This is not really a question of being green,” says Whitehorn, who expresses annoyance that Branson’s pledge last year to invest $3 billion in biofuels research and development was portrayed in the media as a charitable deed. “We’re doing this to make money and we’re creating a more sustainable economy in the process.”

“We’ve got to get away from this idea of doing these things as good works,” he adds. “We’re doing what we’re doing to create a profitable business for the future.”

It’s a meme increasingly being advanced by some environmentalists, most notably by the black sheep of the movement, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, whose 2004 essay, “The Death of Environmentalism” riled the green elite. The Berkeley duo’s new book, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, calls for reframing global warming from a doom-and-gloom scenario to an opportunity for unbridled economic prosperity by investing in green technologies. Their central argument: only when people and societies achieve a certain level of material wellbeing do they have the luxury of supporting environmental preservation. In other words, greed is green.

Whitehorn also took aim at companies that proclaim themselves carbon neutral, scorning the notion that corporate greenhouse gas emissions can be offset by merely buying carbon credits. “We’re not going to be carbon neutral – it’s impossible,” he says of Virgin. “You need to get out and do something other than buy someone else’s carbon problem.”

Still, Kristina Skierka, director of Bite’s clean-tech practice, wanted to know just how green Virgin Galactic can be, given its business model of ferrying the rich into outer space for a couple of hundred grand a pop. “If we use biofuels we will get the emissions down to near zero,” Whitehorn claims. “This is about a new type of launch system; the carbon impacts will be negligible.

He says space tourism is just the launching pad, as it were, for a host of space-based ventures. “If you look at space as an industrial place to conduct human activities, it has huge advantages.”

Virgin’s next frontier is the deep blue sea. According to Whitehorn, the company recently created a skunk works to develop a “radical” new submarine technology for a startup to be called, what else, Virgin Oceanic.

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2008lvcc4.jpgThe 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.

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Volkswagen joins the carbon offsetting craze, announcing today it will neutralize one year’s worth of emissions for every car sold in the United States between September and January. And how will the automaker do that, you may ask? VW, in collaboration with non-profit Carbonfund.org, will plant some 250,000 trees on farmland in northern Louisiana. VW claims the "Volkswagen Forest" will soak up 372,000 tons of CO2. Planting trees, of course, produces a host of environmental benefits for the land, wildlife and people. But using forests to offset greenhouse gas emissions is controversial and for good reason. Trees absorb carbon over over the span of many years while the greenhouse gases spewed from the tailpipe of, say, a VW Touareg SUV begins to warm the planet the moment the key is put in the ignition. (A Touareg, for instance, emits more than 16,000 pounds of C02 if driven 15,000 miles a year, according to Terrapass.) If the Volkswagen Forest burns down or trees die, any offsets will be lost. And research from some scientists indicates that planting forests in North America has a negligible impact on global warming (though that’s not the case in the Southern Hemisphere).  Earlier this year, Land Rover (F) began offsetting C02 from its petrol-guzzling SUVs in the U.K., though it charged its customers for the service. Obviously, if automakers really want to slow global warming they could encourage customers to buy smaller, more fuel-efficient cars and ratchet up their investments in plug-in hybrid and electric vehicle research and production.

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Green Wombat takes public transport to work, uses compact fluorescent light bulbs in the Berkeley burrow, and dries the washing on a clothesline. But when it comes to air
travel, the wombat is a carbon criminal. The conundrum of being an
environmental journalist for a national magazine with a global outlook
is that the more I write about green technology the more I fly. So
far this year, Green Wombat has logged more than 70,000 air miles, which
according to some carbon calculators means I’m personally responsible for about 30,000 pounds of CO2 emissions from my frequent flying. In contrast, the average Californian’s carbon footprint from all activities is 26,301 pounds, according to the San Jose Mercury News. Of course, that plane is going to take off for London or Sydney whether you or I are on it or not, and barring the emergence of a slow travel movement, the number of flights is expected to grow exponentially in the coming decades.

So when I recently booked a flight on Virgin Blue – Richard Branson’s Australian airline – I guiltily pressed the green "Offset Flight Here" button and paid $2.41 to, as Virgin puts it, "fly carbon neutral" on my 900-mile trip. With U.S. carriers like Continental (CAL) and Delta (DAL) planning similar programs to allow fliers to pay a small fee to be invested in projects to reduce greenhouse gases emissions, Virgin Blue offers a look at one approach to airline offsetting.

Carbon offsetting is controversial, slammed by some as a "papal indulgence" that allows consumers to ease their conscience for a pittance without actually changing their behavior. For their part, corporations get to look green without directly reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. (The "A Better Environment at the Push of a Button" on the Virgin Blue home page doesn’t exactly dispel that notion.) Carbon offsetting services are proliferating but remain largely unregulated as do the offset projects themselves, which range from investments in renewable energy to flaring methane gas in landfills to preserving forests. Defenders say carbon offsetting provides needed financial support to worthwhile projects that have a direct impact on global warming as well as raise consciousness about global warming.

Virgin Blue’s program is notable on a couple of counts. First, the airline had its emissions audited so it could calculate the carbon footprint of its flights. Second, Virgin Blue only invests in greenhouse gas abatement projects certified by the Australian and New Zealand governments. In Australia, most of those are gas-flaring operations that burn off methane – a potent greenhouse gas – from landfills. Other approved projects include forest preservation and energy efficiency programs. (Notably absent are renewable energy projects – some 86 percent of Australia’s electricity is generated from coal-fired power plants.) In New Zealand – which, unlike Australia and the United States – has implemented the Kyoto Accord – many of the approved projects involve renewable energy production.

Lastly, Virgin makes the carbon offset option a prominent part of its online reservations system and offers extensive details about what the program does and does not do. With typical Aussie bluntness, one question in the FAQ reads, "If I offset my flight, this doesn’t really address the fact that emissions are still being released into the atmosphere from the aircraft I am flying on. Surely your campaign is just a cosmetic approach to a much larger problem?"

These airline offset programs will likely have little impact on the growing problem of jet greenhouse gas emissions – it’ll take technological breakthroughs like those being pursued by Boeing (BA) and Virgin Fuels to do that. But given that U.S. fliers already pay a 9/11 fee on airline tickets, a mandatory carbon tax on air travel would go a long way to supporting such efforts.

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