Every once in a while, it's time for a primer -- a few basics that help put things in perspective. Despite the dramatic growth of business environmental and sustainability initiatives in recent years, such fundamentals are still important. For every company (or individual) that seem to "get it," a score of companies (or individuals) remain clueless, or seem to be making good time headed in the wrong direction.
(BTW, for a pretty good collection of primers on a range of green business topics, consult GreenBiz.com's GreenBiz Essentials as well as the collection of "backgrounders" at ClimateBiz.com and GreenerBuildings.com.)
So, today I'll proffer a primer on energy choices.
But first, a digression. Pretty much everyone from pre-school on up these days knows the "Three R's" of solid waste: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. There are countless Web sites on the topic, and more than one song.
What many people don't seem to know (or have forgotten) is that the "Three R's" represents more than just a clever alliteration -- it is a hierarchy of priorities. That is, in addressing one's solid waste -- whether a household, a business, or a city -- the most important thing to do is reduce the amount of stuff that will ultimately need to be disposed of (by buying things in bulk, for example, or things with less packaging). Next most important is to reuse what you buy as much as possible to maximize its value (by repairing, refurbishing, or refilling them, for example). Finally, after you've used the least amount of stuff and reused as much of it as possible, you should recycle what's left.
Simple stuff, although a surprising number of people focus on recycling as their sole goal, despite the fact that it's a decidedly third choice.
So, too, with energy.
While there's no popular equivalent of solid waste's "Three R's," I'll proffer an admittedly kludgy version here: Reduce, Renew, Remedy. As with the other "Three R's," it describes a hierarchy. To wit:
For the record: I have little ownership in the design of these "Three R's." I'd be thrilled if someone improved upon this alliteration, either by choosing better words or by finding an entirely new mnemonic that clearly articulates this concept.
What's the point? The point is that, much as they do with recycling, a great many smart people are focusing on offsets as their principal strategy for addressing their climate change impacts, despite the fact that it's the third choice. This is apparent from the seeming gold rush of green tag providers of late. You can now offset just about everything: your home, business, driving, vacations, and other purchases and activities. (Read a great discussion of this phenomenon by Katharine Mieszkowski in Salon.)
Not that there's anything wrong with this -- assuming you've already maximized your energy efficiency and renewables purchases. But buying offsets for an energy-wasteful home or business and calling it environmentally responsible is akin to buying a Diet Coke to go with your double bacon cheeseburger -- and calling it a weight-loss program. Efficiency (and calorie reduction!) comes first.
As many of us step up our efforts to address climate change and promote clean, renewable energy, it is critical that we keep such basic concepts straight lest we make great progress doing the wrong things. From where I sit, a good many well-intentioned people, and companies -- hellbent to be seen as "carbon neutral" or some such -- are doing exactly that.
And that's a big waste of energy.