TH Interview: Gideon Greenspan of Carbon Catalog

Want to zero your carbon emissions, but lost in all the options? Gideon Greenspan, an Internet entrepreneur from Tel Aviv (via London, via Glasgow) has built Carbon Catalog —a carbon offsets directory that can help you navigate through the maze of providers and suppliers. "I'm trying to get away from the 'give us your money and trust us' mindset of the industry, and want to help consumers make decisions based on where their money is going," says Gideon. Here is his story.

TreeHugger: In one sentence, what is Carbon Catalog?
Gideon Greenspan: Carbon Catalog is an independent directory of carbon offsets.

TH: What motivated you to create this project? GG: Naturally, I'm troubled by global warming. Living in a prosperous country, I'm also acutely aware that my lifestyle is part of the problem. So about a year ago I started looking into buying offsets, and got really frustrated. There was almost no information online which wasn't supplied by someone trying to sell to me, and it took me a long time to decide. A few months ago I bought some more and saw that the situation had still not improved. So I had no choice but to put on my Internet developer's hat and do something about it.

TH: How do you work out the ratings at Carbon Catalog?
GG: The ratings are split into two categories — transparency and offset quality. These are calculated directly from the database of projects and providers, so there's no room for bias or my personal opinion. For example, the more information that a provider gives about their team and finances, the higher their transparency rating will be. It's as simple as that.

TH: Can any carbon offset provider get listed?
GG: So far, any provider that has contacted me has been included. I thought hard about this decision, since I realize any fraudster can set up a website and claim to be selling offsets. That's one reason why I introduced the ratings, so that people can get a good indication of how trustworthy a provider is likely to be. But I won't be surprised if I have to change this policy, if and when I discover that a provider is selling hot air.

TH: What makes your project different from any other directory?
GG: Aside from being the most comprehensive directory online, Carbon Catalog's key difference is that it provides detailed information on the actual projects being funded. I'm trying to get away from the "give us your money and trust us" mindset of the industry, and want to help consumers make decisions based on where their money is going.

TH: What do you think about carbon offset critics?
GG: I'm all in favor of pointing out legitimate problems with offsets, and calling providers to account on any fraudulent activities. But I get the impression that many of the critics are simply having a knee-jerk reaction to any environmental constraint on the free market. I'm far from being an anti-capitalist table thumper, but the scientific evidence for global warming is pretty hard to contest.

TH: What have been the responses from the providers/suppliers?
GG: I've received a lot of emails from providers. In most cases, these have been complimentary and supportive, which has been great. But I've had some complaints about the ratings or other information that has been listed. This has usually been due to a simple misunderstanding, and was cleared up after the provider made their site more clear.

TH: What is your favorite type of provider and supplier and why?
GG: I like providers that support several different projects, since I don't want to feel that all of my offset eggs are in one basket. I also like those which give detailed facts and figures about the projects they are supporting. This helps convince me they are honest and know what they are doing. Since no one is forcing me to buy offsets, I am less worried about the price, although of course I do notice it!

TH: Any new features planned for the site?
GG: I'm constantly making small improvements in response to user feedback. But the next major feature will be detailed textual reviews of the providers. I don't feel sufficiently qualified to do this myself, so I'm seeking out an expert on the carbon market who is able to help. It is vitally important that this person has no commercial interests.

TH: Do you offset your own carbon emissions?
GG: Ah, now you've got me! Yes and no. I do offset all of my flights, since I feel they are an unnecessary luxury in relation to their effect on the environment. But I don't yet offset my other emissions, since I feel they are unavoidable. I try not to waste electricity and I use my car rarely since I live in the center of a bustling city (Tel Aviv).

TH: How would you recommend people start offsetting? (i.e. Choose one provider, mix and match...?)
GG: Obviously, start at Carbon Catalog! Seriously, I think people should check out providers who seem honest and reliable and then choose based on the projects they are supporting. Lots of carbon offsets have additional co-benefits in terms of their positive effects on the community, so try to find a provider whose projects are in line with your personal beliefs.


TH: What kinds of providers have the potential to give the best short-term value?
GG: Putting project quality aside, the best providers in the short term are those which help people understand why they are buying offsets. At this stage, carbon offsetting is also about education and advocacy regarding global warming and its causes.

TH: What kinds of providers will give the world the best long-term value?
GG: In the long term, it's clear that the problem of carbon emissions can only be solved by a radical transformation of the global energy economy. So I'm particularly in favor of providers that are focusing on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. Increased demand for these sources will lead to lower production costs. We need to quickly reach the point where renewable energy is cheaper than burning fossil fuels.

TH: Do you recommend that people buy offsets locally (like produce) or is location irrelevant?
GG: If a project is reliable and well quantified, it doesn't make a difference where it takes place. So I think people should decide based on their own conscience - whether they prefer to support local projects or those in developing countries. I can see it both ways.

TH: Do you have a role model or environmental hero?
GG: I truly admire what Al Gore did with his movie "An Inconvenient Truth". I don't care what his motivation was, or about the accuracy of every last fact in the script. He brought an important message to millions of people and deserves huge respect for that. The movie's credits cut straight through me, and were one of the factors which led me to create Carbon Catalog.


TH: Who are the players most likely to drive the carbon offsets market?
GG: Without a doubt it's governments, particularly in the US. With all due respect to voluntary carbon offsets, they are still a drop in the ocean. What we really need is a global carbon tax, or at the very least stringent caps and trading. That would blow the carbon credit market wide open and get the engines of capitalism cranking in the right direction. There's an unbelievable amount of financial and human capital poised to solve this problem. We just need political leadership that is brave enough to set it in motion.

TH: Do you think carbon offsets can be an important intermediate step for curbing climate change?
GG: Yes, but I would replace the word 'intermediate' with 'preliminary'. We have a long way to go before the carbon market, in any of its forms, can be truly said to be slowing or reversing climate change. But every journey begins with the first step.

TH: Thank you.
GG: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.

(This TH writer is set to start working with Gideon on his new blog at Carbon Catolog. Stay tuned.)

::Carbon Catalog

Tags: Carbon Footprint | Carbon Offsets | Israel | Tel Aviv