Definitions

carbon-offsetting

Carbon neutral

Being carbon neutral, or carbon neutrality, refers to achieving net zero carbon emissions by balancing a measured amount of carbon released with an equivalent amount sequestered or offset. Best practice for organisations and individuals seeking carbon neutral status entails reducing and/or avoiding carbon emissions first so that only unavoidable emissions are offset. The term has two common uses:

  • It can refer to the practice of balancing carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels, with renewable energy that creates a similar amount of useful energy, so that the carbon emissions are compensated, or alternatively using only renewable energies that don't produce any carbon dioxide (this last is called a post-carbon economy).
  • It is also used to describe the practice, criticized by some, of carbon offsetting, by paying others to remove or sequester 100% of the carbon dioxide emitted from the atmosphere – for example by planting trees – or by funding 'carbon projects' that should lead to the prevention of future greenhouse gas emissions, or by buying carbon credits to remove (or 'retire') them through carbon trading. These practices are often used in parallel, together with energy conservation measures to minimize energy use.

The concept may be extended to include other greenhouse gases measured in terms of their carbon dioxide equivalence. The phrase was the New Oxford American Dictionary’s Word Of The Year for 2006.

Process

When an individual or an organization sets out to become carbon neutral it is usually achieved by combining the following three steps:

Being carbon neutral is increasingly seen as good corporate or state social responsibility and a growing list of corporations and states are announcing dates for when they intend to become fully neutral. Some corporate examples include Dell, Google, HSBC, ING Group, PepsiCo, and Tesco.

Events such as the G8 Summit and organizations like the World Bank are also using offset schemes to become carbon neutral. Artists like The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd have made albums or tours carbon neutral.

Direct and indirect emissions

To be considered carbon neutral, an organization must reduce its carbon footprint to zero. Determining what to include in the carbon footprint depends upon the organization and the standards they are following.

Generally, direct emissions sources must be reduced and offset completely, while indirect emissions from purchased electricity can be reduced with renewable energy purchases.

Direct emissions include all pollution from manufacturing, company owned vehicles and reimbursed travel, livestock and any other source that is directly controlled by the owner. Indirect emissions include all emissions that result from the use or purchase of a product. For instance, the direct emissions of an airline are all the jet fuel that is burned, while the indirect emissions include manufacture and disposal of airplanes, all the electricity used to operate the airline's office, and the daily emissions from employee travel to and from work. In this case, the power company has a direct emission of greenhouse gas, while the office that purchases it considers it an indirect emission.

Simplification of standards and definitions

Before an agency can certify an organization or individual as carbon neutral, it is important to specify whether indirect emissions are included in the Carbon Footprint calculation. Most Voluntary Carbon neutral certifiers such as Standard Carbon in the US, require both direct and indirect sources to be reduced and offset. As an example, for an organization to be certified carbon neutral by Standard Carbon, it must offset all direct and indirect emissions from travel by 1 lb CO2e per passenger mile, and all non-electricity direct emissions 100%. Indirect electrical purchases must be equalized either with offsets, or renewable energy purchase. This standard differs slightly from the widely used World Resource Institute and may be easier to calculate and apply.

The World Resource Institute, in addition to publishing many tables and help aids for calculating carbon footprints, only requires direct emissions to be reduced and balanced for carbon neutral status, however there is adequate encouragement to include all emissions sources. With this accounting, there are essentially two levels of Carbon neutral: Either all direct and indirect emissions, or only direct emissions.

Much of the disunity in carbon neutral standards can be attributed to the voluntary nature of carbon offseting and carbon neutrality.

The concept of shared resources also reduces the volume of carbon a particular organization has to offset, with all upstream and downstream emissions the responsibility of other organizations or individuals. If all organizations and individuals were involved then this would not result in any double accounting.

Communities and states

Samsø island in Denmark is the largest carbon-neutral settlement on the planet, with a population of 4200, based on wind-generated electricity and biomass-based district heating. They currently generate extra wind power and export the electricity to compensate for petro-fueled vehicles. There are future hopes of using electric or biofuel vehicles.

In July 2007, Vatican City announced a plan to become the first carbon neutral state in the world, following the politics of the Pope to eliminate global warming. The goal would be reached through the donation of the Vatican Climate Forest in Hungary. The forest is to be sized to offset the year's carbon dioxide emissions. However, no trees have actually been planted as of 2008.

The Central American nation of Costa Rica aims to be fully carbon neutral before 2030. In 2004, 46.7% of Costa Rica's primary energy came from renewable sources, while 94% of its electricity was generated from hydroelectric power, wind farms and geothermal energy in 2006. A 3.5% tax on gasoline in the country is used for payments to compensate landowners for growing trees and protecting forests and its government is making further plans for reducing emissions from transport, farming and industry.

On April 19, 2007, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg announced to the Labour Party annual congress that Norway's greenhouse gas emissions would be cut by 10 percent more than its Kyoto commitment by 2012, and that the government had agreed to achieve emission cuts of 30% by 2020. He also proposed that Norway should become carbon neutral by 2050, and called upon other rich countries to do likewise. This carbon neutrality would be achieved partly by carbon offsetting, a proposal criticised by Greenpeace, who also called on Norway to take responsibility for the 500m tonnes of emissions caused by its exports of oil and gas. World Wildlife Fund Norway also believes that the purchase of carbon offsets is unacceptable, saying 'it is a political stillbirth to believe that China will quietly accept that Norway will buy climate quotas abroad'. The Norwegian environmental activist Bellona Foundation believes that the prime minister was forced to act due to pressure from anti-European Union members of the coalition government, and called the announcement 'visions without content'. In January 2008 the Norwegian government went a step further and declared a goal of being carbon neutral by 2030. But the government has not been specific about any plans to reduce emissions at home; the plan is based on buying carbon offsets from other countries.

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References

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