What Does ‘Carbon Neutral’ Really Mean?


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Dear EarthTalk: What does “carbon neutral” really mean? And is it really possible to live in such a manner without just resorting to buying carbon credits?

Carbon neutral is a term that has sprouted many definitions, and how to achieve it has spawned numerous interpretations, too. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, which made carbon neutral its 2006 Word of the Year, it involves calculating your total climate-damaging carbon emissions, reducing them where possible, and then balancing your remaining emissions, often by purchasing a carbon offset.

But the term is really so 06. Today’s term, “climate neutral,” complicates the issue. Tracking carbon is great, but carbon dioxide (CO2) is only one of several greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, says the 2008 publication, Kick the Habit: A U.N. Guide to Climate Neutrality, by the United Nations Environment Program. CO2 makes up some 80 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, but five others – nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, sulphur hexafluoride and methane – also contribute. Limits on all six gases were called for by the Kyoto Protocol international climate treaty.

Semantics aside, whether a person can live in a climate-neutral manner is a question of lifestyle choices and making improvements over time. Start your climate neutral quest by calculating your energy usage. Type “climate footprint” or “carbon footprint” into Google and try a couple of calculators that track use in different ways. One is Earthlab’s (https://www.earthlab.com/createprofile/reg.aspx); the University of California at Berkeley also offers one at: http://bie.berkeley.edu/files/ConsumerFootprintCalc.swf.

For a calculation, you’ll need information about your home energy use and your travel by car and public transit. Some calculators ask whether you’re vegetarian, how much you recycle and compost, and how much you spend buying goods and dining out. The equation can get involved. Record your information sources, and then revisit the calculator periodically with new numbers to see how you’re doing.

The final element involves a carbon offset, “an emission reduction credit from another organization’s project that results in less carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than would otherwise occur” says the David Suzuki Foundation, which promotes “ways for society to live in balance with the natural world.” You can purchase credits from a renewable energy company, for instance, to offset the amount of carbon emissions you can’t eliminate through other measures.

Will your efforts make a difference? Kick the Habit says that, for individuals, “less than 50 percent are direct emissions (such as driving a car or using a heater).” About 20 percent are caused by the creation, use and disposal of products we use; 25 percent comes from powering workplaces; and 10 percent from maintaining public infrastructure. You can drive your car less and turn down the heat, but consider ways you can affect business and government policies that could tap into that other 50-plus percent.

“We are all part of the solution,” wrote U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in the foreword to Kick the Habit. “Whether you are an individual, a business, an organization or a government, there are many steps you can take to reduce your climate footprint. It is a message we must all take to heart.”

CONTACT: Kick the Habit.

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881 USA; submit it at EarthTalk; or e-mail us. Read past columns at our archives.

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  1. David, I appreciate all of your concerns about the environment. I certainly agree that we need to be good stewards of the natural world that has been entrusted to us. However, we need to approach these problems in a balanced way that considers all of the facts.

    I believe that by supporting this idea of “carbon credits” and really through your unabashed support of the theory of global warming, you are playing into the hands of the global elite who want to control the wealth of this country. Hopefully, you will allow me to post this link: REMOVED. After watching the two youtube videos in this article, aren’t you at least a little bit curious that maybe the leaders of the man-made global warming movement are using you for their own ends?

    “Gore”™s founding partner in his carbon-trading / sustainability investment firm is none other than David Blood, CEO of Goldman Sachs”™ asset-management division until 2003. Gore & Blood founded Generation Investment Management, LLC in 2004”“ giving Gore an obvious conflict of interest in pushing a carbon tax.”

    Enron is also credited in the early discussion of the scheme of “carbon credit derivatives”. Furthermore, other familiar names in our current financial crisis also have similar ties to the next “carbon credit derivative” bubble: Paulson, Geithner, and Kashkari – both Bush and Obama admin officials. You might also want to research the role that the General Electric CEO, Jeffery Immelt has played in this effort. George Soros, and major player in the far left of the Democratic party and fresh from making over $1 trillion in his hedge fund last year, is also positioning himself to get rich off of the coming “carbon market”.

    I am not saying that caring for our environment is a bad thing, we all agree on that, but you owe it to your readers to make sure that your good intentions are not leading your readers (and yourself) down a path that will make them subservient to the ends of the global elite.

    1. And even more fear mongering about people out to get you. Must be hard to live so fearful day in and day out. I dont owe anything to my readers, as they are intelligent enough to make up their own mind and follow the advice of real scientists. I suggest you find an outlet for all that fear you carry around other than this site. The people that read this site want real advice. If you want to link to whackos like Infowars, I suggest you make your own site to do so.

  2. David, You might be missing the fact that I read this site on a regular basis. I am one of your readers and as a reader, I appreciate having my assumptions challenged on a regular basis. My family and I also try to incorporate habits that reduce pollution into our daily lives. If you really trusted your readers, you would present both sides of the argument.

    I admit that Infowars can be an extreme site, however the youtube videos that they highlight were not “doctored” in any way. The congressmen who were questioning Mr. Gore had valid points that needed to be explored.

    There are a great many real scientists who are moving to the “man-made global warming skeptic” side of the issue. Including a great many who once worked to further awareness about this issue.

    It is also very relevant that many of the people who are pushing the whole carbon credit idea are the very people who will benefit from it financially. I am not going to post another link, but when you advocate purchasing carbon credits, you should include things like the fact that five members of the Chicago Climate Exchange advisory board are present or former top-ranking U.N. officials — including one who received $1 million from a convicted South Korean lobbyist in the Oil for Food scandal.

    As for the fear issue? I think you and I are advocating competing fears. You fear the effect on the environment of a clear, odorless, naturally occuring gas that is manufactured in nature to a far greater degree than what humans produce. This is a valid fear and we need to look into it and a great many people have been looking into it for many years and there is still no real, credible consensus.

    I, on the other hand, will take my chances with global warming. I personally think that if major climate change happens, humans will be able to adapt. I fear those who, on the basis of this threat that may or may not exist, are asking, nay requiring everyone to give them money in order to combat this threat. Almost everyone who advocates for man-made global warming has a financial incentive to do so.

    Some other ideas that it would be nice to explore is the recent report that ethanol use actually creates a greater carbon footprint (I have endorsed the use of ethanol in the past) and a recent theory that CFL bulbs, because of the amount of mercury in them are worse for the environment. I have advocated on behalf of both of the aforementioned strategies to reduce our impact on the environment. I might have been wrong.

    I also recently attended a debate between a two, equally qualified scientists. One was a GW theory proponent and the other was a skeptic. Have you ever observed such an interaction between two intellectual equals?

    1. No, actually – I am not missing that point. But I do see that you are a conspiracy theorist thinking there is some grand plan out to get you and steal your money, and I just don’t believe it. I am sorry. My regular readers know that the environment they live in is of the upmost importance to them and they don’t have time to worry about such nonsense, that’s all.

      Since no one can ever site real scientists, (other than those ones that never even attended the conference in Poland but rather were just cited from their random papers and books over the years, who think climate change is bunk, which I debunked before), it doesn’t bode well for conspiracy theorists.

      Some thoughts:

      – CFL bulbs are not worse, they are much better. Yet another fallacy from the right. Energy comes from coal plants, which emit tons and tons of mercury. Less energy needed for the CFL’s means less mercury emissions from the plants; way less than is in a light bulb.

      – I don’t advocate for ethanol, I think it’s a horrible idea.

      – I don’t advocate for personal carbon offsets, I think it’s a scam. Something needs to be done for big business, but on a personal level I think it amounts to people buying their way out of guilt.

      Do you not think that the people saying climate change isn’t real, and are still pushing for oil drilling, nuclear plants, and no carbon reduction are not also looking to profit? Personally, I choose the side of A. most scientists and B. doing something to protect the earth and the environment I and my kids will grow up in.

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