Is carbon neutrality a worthwhile goal?

A number of companies have announced plans to go carbon neutral. Even President-elect Barack Obama’s campaign set a goal of “making all new buildings carbon neutral” by 2030. Yahoo announced in April 2007 its goals to achieve carbon neutrality by 2008, and Google followed suit in June. Then in November Fiji Water, the maker of bottled water, announced its plans to go “carbon negative.”
Last year Swiss Re announced it has been carbon neutral since October 2003 because it “bought and decommissioned emissions reduction” credits equal to 230,000 tons of carbon emissions.

The computer company, Dell said it became “carbon neutral” five months ahead of its target last August. In December, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) criticized Dell for its announcement. One of the criticisms of the article is how Dell calculated its carbon footprint. Dell counted “the emissions produced by its boilers and company-owned cars, its buildings’ electricity use, and its employees’ business air travel… that’s only a small fraction of all the emissions associated with Dell.”
What Dell doesn’t include are the “oil used by Dell’s suppliers to make its computer parts, the diesel and jet fuel used to ship those computers around the world, or the coal-fired electricity used to run them.”
Dell estimates the emissions by its consumers and suppliers to be ten times its carbon footprint, or the one it “has defined for itself.” Dell neutralizes “about five percent” of the emissions “that go into the making and use of its products.”
Dell claims it is carbon neutral “mostly by purchasing environmental credits…financial instruments that bankroll environmental improvements made by others.” The problem, according to the WSJ article, is that “some of those improvements would have occurred whether or not Dell invested in them, according to some of the companies involved.”
Is carbon neutrality a myth?
The main way of achieving carbon neutrality is through purchasing carbon offsets. Carbon Trade Watch released a report in 2007 titled The Carbon Neutral Myth. The report compared carbon offsets to the medieval sale of indulgences, and characterized it as a “dead-end detour off the path of action.” The report included a quote by Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research scientist, Kevin Anderson, who called offsetting “dangerous delaying technique” because it encourages inaction.
Denis Hayes, president of environmental grant-making group, the Bullitt Foundation, also compared offsets to indulgences. “Instead of reducing their carbon footprints, people take private jets and stretch limos, and then think they can buy an indulgence to forgive their sins.”
Michael R. Solomon, author of Consumer Behavior: Buying, Having and Being points out that it is human nature to “gravitate toward a more parsimonious solution that requires less behavioral change.” He sees a danger in offsets, namely that they train people to “substitute dollars for deeds – kind of an ‚ÄòI gave at the office’ prescription for the environment.”
Joel Makower, author of Strategies for the Green Economy, predicted in 2007 that as carbon neutral claims “continue to grow in popularity, their value will diminish” the claims could be perceived as a “cover-up for real action.” Makower was concerned a “backlash” against companies that made carbon neutrality claims. Dell knows all about it.

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by

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