My institution, beloved Evergreen with its moss-covered halls, is eager to be greener than green. Like many of its ilk, it especially wants to be able to say that its operations are carbon neutral. Since there is no way that its footprint (either production or consumption based) can go to zero, this means offsets. In preparation for a meeting on this topic, I’ve been thinking about what it means for an enterprise to achieve neutrality, and I’d like to float some of these ruminations.
1. Evergreen is different from most other colleges or companies in that it maintains a large forest. Each year our trees get bigger and more organic matter gets built into the soil, so that represents a big plus in the carbon ledger. From a simple accounting standpoint there can be no dispute. Nevertheless, what does it mean for an entity (like Evergreen) to operate two divisions, so to speak, a working college and an intact forest? Does this mean that we have a license to spew more carbon in our educational operations than we would if we deeded the forest to a land trust? Perhaps the problem lies in the rather arbitrary goal of carbon neutrality. If you will be fixing a certain amount of carbon in one branch of your operations, it may mean that your proper goal overall is a corresponding degree of carbon negativity.
2. And even in the absence of a forest, what is the magic of neutrality? From an economic point of view, the goal should be to maximize the value added (broadly defined) per unit of carbon. This involves reducing the footprint for a given level of services, maybe more services for a given footprint, maybe a better mix of services from a carbon standpoint that will do both. But looking only at the footprint side misses the point. (1) Some services are worth having even if they are relatively, and unavoidably, carbon-intensive. (2) In an ideal world, some institutions would end up having higher footprints than others, with the goal of equalizing net social benefits per ton of carbon. Specifically, it may be (and as an academic I am dogmatically convinced that) a college does more good than almost any other type of organization in society. In that case, it may well be wrong for a college to crimp its services in the pursuit of carbon savings; other savings elsewhere (like hedge funds) are more crimpable. Even more specifically (and with even more self-interest on my part), what about faculty travel to conferences? Very bad, carbonically, but think of the immense social benefit that comes from the networks we geniuses establish among ourselves. Better that, oh, sales reps for academic software companies stay at home and do their pitching via remote teleconferencing.
3. Then there is vexing issue of buying carbon offsets. I’m on record as saying that, in a voluntary environment like the one we have now, offsets are OK, but once we have a mandatory carbon cap they should be seen as a hole in the bucket. I will stand by that, but what happens when you adopt the goal of carbon neutrality? The fact is, if an organization takes neutrality as its mission, it really does trade off its own emission reductions against the purchase of offsets. Since offsets are unreliable (additivity problems, principle-agent problems), how should they be discounted in carbon calculations? I still think that, all else equal, it is peachy to purchase an offset, but if the price includes not taking some other beneficial action that was available, all else is not equal and all bets are off. So, if you can reduce air travel but you don’t because you’ve bought some offsets instead, if the offsets don’t do what they promise you don’t meet your goals. Once again, I think the root problem is the assumption that neutrality is a magic point on the carbon meter, and that reductions above or below that level (as opposed to getting to it) are of second-order significance. If you drop that and view all reductions as intrinsically good (leaving aside costs), the notion of a tradeoff between reducing your own emissions and buying offsets vanishes. And that’s how it should be. The goal should be calibrated to what an institution can accomplish. If you have the possibility to significantly cut your carbon footprint you should try to do that. If you have a good financial mechanism for purchasing offsets, do that too. Good is good.
4. We are (or maybe only I am) getting tied into knots over nothing. At the moment we are in a strange situation: most of the public recognizes the necessity of combating climate change and there is near-consensus at institutions like Evergreen that we have to begin taking action now. Meanwhile, the federal government is in the hands of what can only be described as a hydrocarbon cult, determined to thwart any threat to their beloved industry. This can’t continue much longer, and I’m convinced it won’t. Not only do both major presidential candidates back a mandatory carbon cap, the corporate sector seems to be on board too. (They will do whatever it takes to minimize their own financial exposure, but that’s a different story.) Chances are, in a year we will have legislation that puts a limit on greenhouse gas emissions and drives the price of carbon fuels way up. Then the big challenge facing everyone will be how to cope with it. Places like Evergreen won’t need a carbon neutrality task force; they will be forced to dramatically curtail their footprint just like everyone else. Students who now commute by car won’t be able to afford it any more, so you have to find other commuting and housing options for them or you lose your students. Heating bills will explode, so you have to find ways to use less fuel for heating. And yes, faculty travel to distant conferences will become a lot more expensive, so solutions will have to be found there too. Repeat: instead of wracking our brains about how to calculate our carbon footprint, we will be struggling to control costs. This will lead us to reduce our footprint whether we want to or not, which is the point of the legislation. Maybe, just maybe the institutions that take action today to reduce carbon emissions will be better positioned to survive the coming cap, but that will be because they have taken action on their own operations, not because they bought a thick portfolio of offsets.
So the bottom line is that, in voluntary carbon policy, as in most other aspects of this issue, we are losing valuable time by asking the wrong questions. There are ultimately only two questions that make sense for us individually and collectively: how can we get a fair, effective, rational climate policy pronto, and how can we cope with it once we have it? If Evergreen has a few grand to invest in offsets, I’d rather see it put the money into political action for better policy. And rather than pulling me into a task force to measure our carbon footprint operation by operation, I’d like them to enlist me and anyone else they can corral into an effort to forecast the impact that national policy will have on us so we can start preparing today.