Is All CO2 Equal? Part 1

OK, I'm going to come right out and admit it: carbon accounting and offsets hurt my brain. There's too many parts that feel like apples to oranges, and I keep thinking myself into corners.

Before we get into my personal issues, let me describe what I'm talking about. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the most prevalent green house gasses. As it is a common byproduct of extracting energy from fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, coal), most of our everyday activities generate CO2 as a direct or indirect effect. For example, in the US producing electricity creates, on average, around 1.3 lbs of CO2 per kWH. So a 60W bulb running for 16 hours (about 1 kWH), produces 1.3 lbs of CO2 that generally goes into the atmosphere.

Now if I want to reduce my CO2 production, I can do it a number of ways. First, I could stop doing whatever it is that's producing CO2. Second, I can find greener sources of energy for what I want to do, maybe use a hybrid car or install some solar cells for electricity. Finally, I can do what I was going to do, but purchase some CO2 credits or "offsets" which counterbalance my creation of CO2. (if you want some history on this type of trading system, check out Wikipedia's article on emissions trading).

Offsets derive from a couple of sources. First, the money you pay may be used to fund alternative energy sources. Second, it may fund the development of carbon sequestration sources, or, in english, things that will take green house gasses out of the atmosphere. Planting trees is a popular form of sequestration. Finally, organizations can get credit for CO2-reducing activities that are beyond "business as usual". This last set are the most controversial and difficult to understand.

The critical question is what does it mean to counterbalance or offset my CO2 production? This is a topic of hot debate. A number of organizations have put themselves in a position of "blessing" CO2 offsets (example), but of course, since there's more than one of those, there isn't agreement among them and they don't necessarily make things clearer. To get an idea of the depth and complexity of this discussion, you might take a look at this report from Clean Air/CoolPlanet, the rebutals (1, 2) from Terrapass, a popular group which helps individuals with personal CO2 offsets, and an analysis of it on Gristmill aptly titled "Ranking carbon offset provi... hey, where you going?".

One last note. People often get sloppy between talking about CO2 and carbon. You'll often hear people talk about "carbon offsets", when they really mean CO2 offsets. Sometimes things are measured in carbon, so there is a conversion required to switch between CO2 and carbon mass measurements. For example, in this useful site you'll see that a carbon calculation is multiplied by 44/12 to get the amount of CO2. That's because the carbon atom has an approximate molar mass of 12, vs. the two oxygen atoms at 16 each. So the total is 44, 12 of which is carbon.

Whew. So that's some background. Given the complexity of this topic, I've decided to break it into an as-yet undetermined number of parts. In the next few parts we'll look at a specific example, and in the last parts I'll summarize and discuss some of the internal debate and thought processes that are going on within Sun on this topic.

Comments:

I'm now very interested in your calculations of CO2 vs kwh .can you please send me a simply formal that even a non-energy person mite be able to under stand .here in N.B. Canada we are at a stand still .All the GOV. will understand is its going to cost alot of money for new infostructure for home hot water and heating and cooling air but they only seem to be looking no further than the next turn over in GOV .4 years only puts a bandade on the dam but CLIMATE CHANGE is already breaking through its very ugly head.I for one want to work with them to try for a positive out come by reduction of use and at the same time ,balancing what we as Canadians consider the comfort and amenities we've been acustomed. if you could help me with this i will send you my findings as for now all i can say is we've come up with tech. to reduce a homes energy use by 125% thats not to say its every home but it is truly amazing what you can do .one person can make a difference ,with a litle help ,and they can help many. yours truly kier mizuik.

Posted by kier mizuik on February 01, 2007 at 10:08 AM EST #

If you buy a hybrid are you taking into account the total costs (actual and opportunity costs of carbon produced) for producing (design to delivery) the car? Are the total avoided carbon costs from the lifetime ownership of your car higher than than those carbon costs from producing the car? I have gut feeling that carbon costs from producing the hybrid is higher.

Posted by Noel Kuriakos on February 01, 2007 at 10:08 AM EST #

MANDATORY RENEWABLE ENERGY – THE ENERGY EVOLUTION –R7 In order to insure energy and economic independence as well as better economic growth without being blackmailed by foreign countries, our country, the United States of America’s Utilization of Energy sources must change. "Energy drives our entire economy." We must protect it. "Let's face it, without energy the whole economy and economic society we have set up would come to a halt. So you want to have control over such an important resource that you need for your society and your economy." The American way of life is not negotiable. Our continued dependence on fossil fuels could and will lead to catastrophic consequences. The federal, state and local government should implement a mandatory renewable energy installation program for residential and commercial property on new construction and remodeling projects with the use of energy efficient material, mechanical systems, appliances, lighting, etc. The source of energy must by renewable energy such as Solar-Photovoltaic, Geothermal, Wind, Biofuels, etc. including utilizing water from lakes, rivers and oceans to circulate in cooling towers to produce air conditioning and the utilization of proper landscaping to reduce energy consumption. The implementation of mandatory renewable energy could be done on a gradual scale over the next 10 years. At the end of the 10 year period all construction and energy use in the structures throughout the United States must be 100% powered by renewable energy. In addition, the governments must impose laws, rules and regulations whereby the utility companies must comply with a fair “NET METERING” (the buying of excess generation from the consumer), including the promotion of research and production of “renewable energy technology” with various long term incentives and grants. The various foundations in existence should be used to contribute to this cause. A mandatory time table should also be established for the automobile industry to gradually produce an automobile powered by renewable energy. The American automobile industry is surely capable of accomplishing this task. This is a way to expedite our energy independence and economic growth. (This will also create a substantial amount of new jobs). It will take maximum effort and a relentless pursuit of the private, commercial and industrial government sectors commitment to renewable energy – energy generation (wind, solar, hydro, biofuels, geothermal, energy storage (fuel cells, advance batteries), energy infrastructure (management, transmission) and energy efficiency (lighting, sensors, automation, conservation) in order to achieve our energy independence. "To succeed, you have to believe in something with such a passion that it becomes a reality." Jay Draiman, Energy Consultant Northridge, CA. 91325 1-14-2007 P.S. I have a very deep belief in America's capabilities. Within the next 10 years we can accomplish our energy independence, if we as a nation truly set our goals to accomplish this. I happen to believe that we can do it. In another crisis--the one in 1942--President Franklin D. Roosevelt said this country would build 60,000 [50,000] military aircraft. By 1943, production in that program had reached 125,000 aircraft annually. They did it then. We can do it now. The American people resilience and determination to retain the way of life is unconquerable and we as a nation will succeed in this endeavor of Energy Independence. Solar energy is the source of all energy on the earth (excepting volcanic geothermal). Wind, wave and fossil fuels all get their energy from the sun. Fossil fuels are only a battery which will eventually run out. The sooner we can exploit all forms of Solar energy (cost effectively or not against dubiously cheap FFs) the better off we will all be. If the battery runs out first, the survivors will all be living like in the 18th century again. Every new home built should come with a solar package. A 1.5 kW per bedroom is a good rule of thumb. The formula 1.5 X's 5 hrs per day X's 30 days will produce about 225 kWh per bedroom monthly. This peak production period will offset 17 to 24 cents per kWh with a potential of $160 per month or about $60,000 over the 30-year mortgage period for a three-bedroom home. It is economically feasible at the current energy price and the interest portion of the loan is deductible. Why not? Title 24 has been mandated forcing developers to build energy efficient homes. Their bull-headedness put them in that position and now they see that Title 24 works with little added cost. Solar should also be mandated and if the developer designs a home that solar is impossible to do then they should pay an equivalent mitigation fee allowing others to put solar on in place of their negligence. Installing renewable energy system on your home or business increases the value of the property and provides a marketing advantage.

Posted by Jay Draiman on February 01, 2007 at 10:11 AM EST #

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Posted by guest on February 16, 2007 at 06:35 PM EST #

Some aspects of offsets seem reasonable, i.e., funding future low CO2 energy production which otherwise would not be built, or say a company planting trees on their own property to offset their CO2 production. However, overall, I find most CO2 offsets immoral.

Sometimes, the actions taken as part of the offest are going to happen anyway, or indeed have happened. Every time, the actions taken as part of the offset are often actions which should be taken anyway. Like charity, it is morally right to do these regardless of if they make you feel you are atoning for your sins.

The same applies for cases where an investment has already been made in green power. If the windmill is already in place, how does paying the owner affect anything? It is already generating green power. Paying the owner does not make it produce more power.

As an example, I am half-owner of about 320 acres of forest land. As I own a bunch of CO2 consuming trees, does that mean I should be free to drive a Range Rover and keep my lights on at night? No, that would still be energy gluttony, even if I am "offset" by my trees. And the trees would be there if I owned them are not, just like they were there before I bought them.

There is an old rule about ethics. It is doing the right thing when no one is looking. People should be doing the things the offsetters are doing without needing offsetters. And REC middlemen offsetters remind me of the traders outside the temple in the New Testament.

There is something just morally wrong about all of this.

Posted by Mark on March 11, 2007 at 05:02 PM EDT #

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