Some Bold Steps to Make Your Carbon Footprint Smaller


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Some Bold Steps to Make Your Carbon Footprint Smaller

Carbon-dioxide equivalents may be the most complicated currency on world markets today. A basic exchange works like this: When a company like the Gap commits to reducing emissions but cannot, or chooses not to, cut the energy used to move clothes across the globe, it finances someone else’s green project. Rather than put $100, say, toward reinventing its shipping system, the Gap may spend $20 to plant trees or invest in a clean utility. If a new power plant is needed in India, carbon investments from the Gap and others make it possible to build a more expensive wind farm instead of a coal plant. Win-win, the logic goes: because carbon emissions are a global problem, it doesn’t matter where they are reduced. The system of carbon trading exploded after the Kyoto Protocol and in 2006 sustained a $30 billion market representing nearly 1.7 billion tons of traded carbon dioxide. The market extends beyond signatories to include companies that participate voluntarily. These days, even individual consumers are joining in to pay offset retailers somewhere between $3 and $40 per ton in order to counter the carbon they emit driving to work or just running their refrigerators. But individuals are confronting many of the same uncertainties that companies and countries have been navigating under the Kyoto Protocol. First, how to determine your emissions? There are several calculators on the Web, but they yield different answers. “When you fly, the fuel efficiency of your plane varies,” Jeff Swenerton, a spokesman at Green-e, an offset-certification program, points out. He says that calculators, for example, don’t factor in that “all things being equal, different airplanes of the same model can have wildly different burn rates.” Once you have a carbon figure, which offsets should you buy? Certification isn’t standardized either. Part of the problem is in the measuring: how old should a replanted forest be before it earns credit? What if it gets logged or burns? Another issue: how do certification schemes verify that the projects they invest in add real, new carbon reduction to the market? Should credits subsidize solar power in a city that already gives solar tax breaks? There are social questions too: should certification only make sure that carbon hasn’t entered the atmosphere, or should it include other goals, like sustainable development? Some argue that if a project generates less carbon but disrupts a local community, it forces the poor to take responsibility for the pollution of the rich and reinforces a model of development that created the problem of global warming in the first place. Although it has been muddled by competing standards, the market is maturing. The Voluntary Carbon Standard, created by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and two other nongovernmental organizations, is widely seen as a benchmark of quality assurance, and carbon credits certified by it sell for between $5 and $15 per ton. Credits certified by a competitor, the Gold Standard, sell for between $8 and $40 per ton, while offering additional standards for sustainable community development. “We can’t necessarily rely on a country’s environmental standards as adequate,” says Michael Schlup, director of the Gold Standard. He also adds, “We need to give something to people and places who are giving us emissions reductions safely.” (The V.C.S. recognizes that the Gold Standard offers an added virtue.) Russell Simon, a spokesman for the nonprofit carbon retailer who admits the carbon-certification business “really is a baffling market,” says he thinks that a battle over standards can be healthy, but that one or two companies need “to emerge and build trust in their brand of certification.” He adds, “It is a bit like the wars we used to have at the beginning of using the word ‘organic.’ Now we agree what that means.” TESS TAYLOR

To develop a label that lets a consumer know exactly how much CO2 was released in creating a product is an enormous challenge. A modern corporation can have thousands of suppliers scattered across several continents, all producing their own pollution. Despite the obstacles, many companies are trying to conduct carbon audits. Wal-Mart, for example, decided to examine the supply-chain emissions of seven product categories. Timberland is attempting to assess the environmental impact of its shoes and has investigated not only its own emissions but also the emissions of some of its suppliers. The company was surprised to find that transportation may account for less than 5 percent of its greenhouse-gas emissions — while almost 80 percent may come from making the leather, a process buried deep in its supply chain. Cows produce huge amounts of methane, which turns into CO2 in the atmosphere. Because the hide makes up roughly 7 percent of the cash value of the cow, Timberland took responsibility for 7 percent of the cows’ emissions. “The hide is a waste product of the meat industry,” Betsy Blaisdell, manager of environmental stewardship for Timberland, says. “There is some argument about whether we should account for those emissions, but we do.” Calculating a product’s carbon footprint means confronting similar questions about what and how to measure. A program called the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Initiative is developing standards that will allow companies to calculate their indirect emissions with some precision. But reliable carbon labels are probably years away, says Arpad Horvath, an associate professor of engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, who is currently examining the life cycle of some two dozen consumer products. “When people talk about a universal carbon-labeling program policy,” he says, “I tell them they need to hold their horses a little.” CHARLES WILSON

Sunshine is free, but producing and installing the photovoltaic panels that convert sunshine into electricity is expensive — up to $40,000 for the average home. The panels will pay for themselves eventually, but that’s cold comfort to anyone looking to raise the initial investment. As the actor Ed Begley Jr. put it in a recent infomercial for solar energy, “If the mobile-phone industry required you to invest $10,000 to get your wireless service, and it was your responsibility to maintain and repair the network, would you have a cellphone?” Begley’s infomercial appears on the Web site of Citizenre, a company that will rent you panels it installs itself. But Citizenre has yet to deliver a single system, open the photovoltaic-panel factory that was supposed to make its plan possible or even announce any financing for the factory, leading some in the industry to worry that it will end up generating more ill will than kilowatts. Whether or not Citizenre can deliver on its promises, Begley’s critique remains apt. We don’t expect users of conventional electricity to build their own backyard power plants, so why do we expect solar customers to buy and install their own photovoltaic panels? Travis Bradford, founder and president of the Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Development, says he thinks that expectation is about to go the way of the rotary phone. The change has already happened in the commercial sector, where solar is now more likely to be sold as a service than a product. On the residential side, a company called Sun Run offers Californians a similar arrangement to the one proposed by Citizenre, although Sun Run’s customers still have to pay about a third of the upfront costs. Yet as solar-panel costs go down and electricity rates go up, that equation is likely to improve. “Over the next few years,” Bradford predicts, “anyone who wants a customer to make an upfront payment for solar will lose the deal to someone who doesn’t.’ DASHKA SLATER

In many parts of the country, walking has become as quaint a pastime as spinning yarn or playing the bagpipes. Between 1977 and 1995, the number of daily walking trips taken by adults declined by 40 percent — while more than a quarter of all car trips are now shorter than a mile. Those under-a-mile journeys fall into the zone that new urbanists call “walkshed”: the area a person can reasonably cover on foot. People whose walksheds teem with shops and restaurants have more reason to walk than those whose don’t, so it was only a matter of time before someone tried to quantify a neighborhood’s pedestrian-friendliness. Last summer, a trio of Seattle software developers started, which calculates the number of potential destinations within walking distance of any given address and then produces a rating. If your neighborhood scores 90 or above, you can easily live there without a car; if it scores under 25, you’ll be driving to the backyard. More than a million addresses were searched in the site’s first month. Matt Lerner, one of the site’s developers, knew the concept had arrived when a condo in Seattle hung out a gigantic banner that said “Walk Score 100.” “People react really negatively to phrases like ‘density,’ ” he says, “but they react really positively to phrases like ‘walkability.’ ”Walk Score’s popularity may be a sign that walking is making a comeback, fueled by both rising gas prices and widening waistlines. An economics researcher at Washington University in St. Louis suggests that raising gasoline prices by $1 a gallon would reduce American obesity by 9 percent. Another study posits that if every American spent 30 minutes a day walking or cycling instead of driving, we would collectively cut carbon emissions by 64 million tons and shed more than three billion pounds of excess flab. All of this sounds great in theory, but most people find that their good intentions falter when faced with the extra time it takes to walk. Yet Alan Durning, an environmental researcher whose blog about living without a car inspired Walk Score, argues that walking may be the ultimate timesaver. He cites a British study that suggests that for every minute you walk, you live about three minutes longer. “You’re not using time,” Durning argues; “you’re generating time.” DASHKA SLATER

At 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 28, residents in West Texas came home from work and turned on their appliances — at precisely the moment when the wind died down in local wind farms. Power plummeted by more than half. The grid neared collapse. So the utilities put in a frantic call to ConsumerPowerline. The company practices “demand response”: it pays electricity consumers to turn out the lights when demand is too high. Within seven minutes, ConsumerPowerline instructed several major corporations to turn down their heat and lighting — removing 70 megawatts of demand — and a blackout was narrowly averted. Successes like this are why demand response has become one of the most powerful green techniques for protecting the nation’s overtaxed power grids. When a blackout looms, utilities call a small coterie of demand-response firms. These firms prearrange for major users of electricity — factories, shopping malls, skyscrapers — to shut down all nonessential electricity in exchange for payments, often totaling tens of thousands of dollars each year. It’s expensive, but far less so than a blackout that cascades across the country. The infamous Northeastern blackout in August 2003 cost an estimated $7 billion. Demand response is, in essence, an inversion of the traditional logic of power generation: instead of paying to create power, you pay money to reduce the need for it. The procedure has been particularly popular in major cities, where grids are strained to the limit. ConsumerPowerline controls 300 huge buildings in New York alone, where hastily brokered turnoffs by Macy’s and major hotels prevented the spread of a 2006 blackout in Queens — a blackout that lasted for more than a week — into Manhattan. “If you’re someone who’s controlling 100 buildings at once, and with a flick of a finger you can change their energy behavior,” says Gary Fromer, ConsumerPowerline’s C.E.O., “that’s very powerful.” CLIVE THOMPSON

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CROATIAN CENTER of RENEWABLE ENERGY SOURCES (CCRES)• was founded in 1988 as the non-profit European Association for Renewable Energy that conducts its work independently of political parties, institutions, commercial enterprises and interest groups, • is dedicated to the cause of completely substituting for nuclear and fossil energy through renewable energy, • regards solar energy supply as essential to preserve the natural resources and a prerequisite for a sustainable economy,• acts to change conventional political priorities and common infrastructures in favor of renewable energy, from the local to the international level, • brings together expertise from the fields of politics, economy, science, and culture to promote the entry of solar energy, • provides the opportunity to play a part in the sociocultural movement for renewable energy by joining the association for everyone, • considers full renewable energy supply a momentous and visionary goal - the challenge of the century to humanity. Zeljko Serdar Head of CCRES association

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