Biting the hand that feeds us (and hello, New York Times readers!)

The GormansThey say any PR is good PR, and I suppose that’s true. We’re receiving a lot of visitors from today’s front page New York Times article about consumer carbon offsets that heavily features TerraPass. And those visitors are buying. And for that we are extremely grateful.

But the author of the piece couldn’t resist trotting out some of the same old myths about carbon offsets. The fourth paragraph, in particular, contains some extraodinary editorializing:

Of course, emissions could be reduced the old-fashioned way — by flying less, turning off the air-conditioning or buying a more fuel-efficient car. But that would probably require some sacrifice and perhaps even a change in lifestyle. Instead, carbon-offset programs allow individuals to skip the sacrifice and simply pay for the right to pollute.

Why this false opposition between conservation and carbon offsets? The article is accompanied by a fairly nifty multimedia piece that completely undercuts the notion that consumers use offsets as a “permit to pollute.” The video follows TerraPass customers Cyd and Tony Gorman as they talk about why they decided to go carbon neutral.

Cyd is a lifelong environmentalist, concerned and knowledgeable about the impact of her consumption decisions, who has been driving a Toyota Prius hybrid since 2001. Still, she laments the fact that she only get 42 miles to the gallon because her job requires a lot of highway driving, so she uses a TerraPass to offset her already fairly low fuel consumption.

Her husband Tony also describes himself as an environmentalist, but his Dodge Durango gets maybe 13 miles to the gallon. He needs the car for his work, which involves tranporting heavy loads. “Yeah, I feel a little guilt about the consumption of the fossil fuel for the car,” he says, “But I have to balance that with running my business, and most people do.” Fair enough. Fortunately, Tony’s car is also carbon neutral, thanks to his purchase of a TerraPass.

Thomas Friedman, also writing for the Times, got the issue of carbon offsets exactly right recently in a column calling for all college campuses to go carbon neutral:

Once you determine your university’s total CO2 emissions, the next step, suggests Glenn Prickett, a senior vice president at Conservation International, should be to have “your own graduate students in science and engineering develop their own comprehensive plan to reduce fossil fuel consumption.” They can turn to more efficient lighting, heating and cooling; more hybrid vehicles; and better building design, including renewable energy technologies like solar panels.

After a college reduces its carbon emissions as much as possible, it can then develop a strategy for offsetting the greenhouses gases it is still putting into the atmosphere. To become carbon-neutral, you need to finance a project that will measurably reduce greenhouse gases, and it has to be a project that would not have happened if your school had not paid for it. That’s how you get the credit.

It sounds to us like Cyd and Tony are following a similar program, on a personal scale.

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  1. Tom Hogan - April 30, 2006

    Hello Tom,,
    I was offended when I read “paying for the right to pollute” and mentally muttered a few expletives; however, I was so excited that I could do something positive for the environment to counter the harm being done by my Jeep, that I let it go. I don’t have the time nor energy to investigate who authored the article or to write expessing my discontent. I’m sure you have conveyed the “class action” feelings. At this point, I’m grateful that it appeared,(I believe I commented about the PR when I subscribed) and that I followed through; although, I haven’t displayed my decals yet, but have distributed the discount coupons. I do intend to lobby the staff at my high school, my friends who are part of the business community, and anyone who’ll listen, to instill guilt, or whatever it takes to help alleviate my own guilt for being part of the problem. But, now I genuinely feel like part of the solution and I truly thank you for the opportunity.
    Tom Hogan

  2. Geoff - May 4, 2006

    Congrats on being featured in the Times. The offputting spin is a perfect example of the challenge we face in differentiating the climate problem from every other environmental concern we’ve dealt with since the first Earth Day. The idea that a ton of CO2 saved anywhere on the globe can exactly offset a ton emitted someplace else is completely counterintuitive, if you are stuck in a local pollutants mindset.