Local Offsetting — A Proposal

iStock_000008718223XSmallFor months now, I’ve been wrestling about whether or not Post Carbon Institute should offset the carbon emissions of our Speakers Bureau. Whenever possible, we prefer to have our speakers present via webcast but often we’ve found that there’s a strong cause to attend in person.

But I’m not impressed by the carbon offset options out there. I really want to find a way to put our offsets to good use–by funding local energy projects in the communities to where our speakers are traveling–but the sad truth is that no one out there providing that service. And so, below, is a humble proposal for someone to do something about that.

The voluntary carbon offset market has grown by leaps in bounds in recent years, exceeding $705 billion in 2008 alone. While it’s likely that the market has declined in 2009 as a result of the economic crisis, a number of carbon offset providers remain, the vast majority of whom have two significant limitations:

  1. They use carbon footprint calculators that fail to account for the full scope of peoples’ climate impact.
  2. They typically conduct offset projects in distant locations with little by way of accounting.

Typically, carbon footprint calculators either help users estimate their CO2E (carbon dioxide equivalent) emissions by plugging in data about their driving, flying, and home energy use, or they provide an average by taking their country’s national greenhouse gas inventory and dividing it by the population. Both approaches fail to account for any indirect responsibility–the climate impact of food or goods purchased, for example. The national greenhouse gas inventory for the United States, for instance, doesn’t include goods that are produced overseas and consumed by Americans. This is a huge oversight.

It’s a complex and imperfect science, and so I can understand why most carbon offset providers focus solely on direct emissions. But by some estimates, indirect emissions are on average 60% of a person’s carbon footprint. Thankfully, some groups–like the Berkeley Institute on the Environment–are attempting to tackle the full scope of the climate impact of individuals, businesses, and cities. I hope that carbon offset providers begin to provide their clients with a better understanding of their real carbon footprints. Frankly, it’s better business for them.

The second issue, the one about remote placement and accountability of offset projects, is frankly more vexing to me. In my neck of the woods, Pacific Gas & Electric has a voluntary offset program for its customers called ClimateSmart. There’s lots wrong with this program, but one of the good things is that it’s the only program I’m aware of that is investing all it’s money into projects locally (in this case, in California); the other is that the program is regulated and overseen by the California Public Utilities Commission.

Why aren’t more offset programs investing locally? My guess is that the logistics for providers that are national or international in scope are a complete nightmare. Far better for them to pick a few projects that they can work with again and again, to ensure quality and cut down on costs. I don’t blame them. And some, like Native Energy, fund projects on dairies and wind farms here in the States–giving their customers an option of which they wish to fund.

That’s nice and all, but don’t we need a crash course of localized energy production? A number of people and organizations are trying to develop models to do just that–including Woody Tasch’s Slow Money Alliance, Co-op Power in Massachusetts, and Local Energy in Santa Fe. Second to building awareness, I think finding a way to capitalize local energy and food projects is job #1 of Transition Town Initiatives and other peak oil, climate, or food safety groups.

So I have an idea for anyone who’s willing to tackle both issues at once: Develop a carbon offset fund that invests directly into local energy production. The fund could be established by or with a socially responsible group like RSF Social Finance and partner with groups like the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. The fund would establish criteria and work with BALLE and/or others to provide training, support, and quality assurance for local initiatives that meet those criteria. Maybe one or all of the three organizations above (Slow Money, Co-op Power, and Local Energy) could develop business models that local communities could implement.

The fund would, of course, have to establish a marketing strategy (one that I could see would rely heavily on partnerships with like-minded networks like credit unions) to reach people, and a website with a robust calculator (like BIE’s lifecycle calculator) that provided people with concrete information about ways to reduce their carbon footprint and gave them options for which community project in which they could invest their money.

Obviously, assets raised by carbon offsets wouldn’t come close to meeting the financial needs of projects, and so the fund must commit to supporting initiatives in raising local capital. But the offsets could be a good start. I know a lot of people who’ve grown weary of carbon offsets because they’re not assured that projects are truly offsetting their footprint and/or feel like they are buying indulgences. But if they were investing in their local community, where they could see the outcome of their contribution and benefited from it, I think the would feel very differently.

In all honestly, I want to see this happen so Post Carbon Institute could offset the impacts of our Speakers Bureau in a way that met our values as an organization.

Who knows? Maybe I’m the only one who sees a need for this. But if you’re with me, spread the word or take it on. If I can, I’m happy to help.

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