So, you're a typical driver. You haven't yet gone the hybrid route (or, at least, your hybrid is back-ordered, still months away) but you'd like to lessen the environmental load of your daily commute, your family vacation, and all the other time you spend behind the wheel.
Welcome to the world of climate-neutral driving. A cottage industry of companies seems to be springing up around helping us “drive green” by buying “green tags” -- also known as “tradable renewable energy certificates” or “renewable energy credits” (the latter referred to as “RECs” -- just what you want your car to be involved in).
By whatever name, they’re both simple and not-so-simple to understand. Consider this explanation from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, one of the pioneers in the field:
Green Tags represent the real savings in carbon dioxide and other pollutants that occur when green power replaces burning fossil fuel.
Got that? I didn’t think so.
The simplest explanation I can muster is that when you buy green tags, you’re paying a electricity generator to put a certain amount of renewable energy (usually from wind, sometimes from solar or biomass) into the grid, thereby reducing the need for some dirty power plant to produce the same amount of juice from coal or natural gas or nukes.
Buying green tags has a couple of other benefits besides reducing the need for fossil-fuel electricity. It helps to stimulate markets for renewable energy, and it allows individuals, businesses, and others to “offset” their climate emissions -- from electricity, driving, and other activities.
Hence, the new great business opportunity: Make everything climate neutral.
And, it seems, nearly anything can be. The 2002 Olympic Winter Games were the first international world class event to eliminate their climate impact through offsets. The Saunders Hotel Group has created climate neutral accommodations at the Lenox and Copley Square hotels in Boston. The Dave Matthews Band created the first climate neutral rock tour. In Oregon, Jiffy Lube worked with the Climate Neutral Network to offer drivers the choice to travel climate-neutral between oil changes through a partnership with employees at Nike and the City of Portland. There’s climate-neutral web hosting. And Interface, Inc., the sustainably minded carpet company, now has a Cool Carpet floorcovering.
So, what about your driving? There are several companies eager to sell you the right to neutralize the climate impact of even the most gas-guzzling vehicle. But caveat emptor: They vary widely in cost -- and what you get for the money.
I just test-drove five sites, and here’s my report, based on my own driving habits, which total (a mere) 6,000 miles a year in a convertible that averages (a pathetic) 22 miles per gallon:
Why the differences? First of all, there’s no clear agreement on the number of pounds of CO2 emissions per gallon of gas. The U.S. Energy Information Administration puts the number at 19.564 pounds of carbon dioxide produced per gallon of gasoline used, but a quick web scan found estimates ranging from 19 pounds to 26 pounds per gallon.
Beyond that, different types of offsets produce different results. For example, DrivingGreen states that:
Your purchase will support projects that reduce methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions in agriculture. Methane and nitrous oxide are two very powerful greenhouse gases, more powerful than carbon dioxide (CO2) in terms of global warming. DrivingGreen’s GHG emission reduction projects are located throughout the United States and Canada.
Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 21 times more potent in global warming than carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide is 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
In other words, reducing 1 tonne of methane has the same positive effect as reducing 21 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Reducing 1 tonne of nitrous oxide has the same positive effect as reducing 310 tonnes of carbon dioxide. These projects also promote cleaner air and water.
You should also make sure that the offset you're buying is certified by the Center for Resource Solutions, whose Green-e logo represents that the offset provider provides transparency and other disclosure about the source of the offsets -- basically, that's its doing what it says it is. All of the services mentioned here, except for DrivingGreen, mention Green-e certification on their Web sites.
Of course, there's the larger idea of whether we can drive our way to environmental health simply by buying offsets. As you likely know, the idea is to drive as little as possible, then offset the miles you must drive. But few of the sites mention that.
In the end, it may all boil down to what you are willing to pay -- and what makes you feel good. Native Energy, for example, is another of the pioneers in this field and its offsets help address social as well as environmental goals. The company already helped build a Native American-owned and operated wind turbine – the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Wind Turbine Project, a single 750kW wind turbine demonstration project. Now it's working on building a full-scale, 10-megawatt wind farm on the Rosebud Reservation -- the first large-scale Native American-owned and operated wind farm in the U.S.
Ah, but then again, did I mention DrivingGreen’s really cool t-shirt?