The TH Interview: Jason Smith, CEO of DriveNeutral

Jason Smith is CEO of DriveNeutral, a service that provides vehicle drivers with the opportunity to neutralize the negative effects their driving has on climate change. DriveNeutral is a non-profit enterprise of the non-profit Presidio World College's Presidio School of Management, where Jason earned his MBA.

TreeHugger: Climate change seems like such a big, overwhelming problem. Can DriveNeutral really make a difference?

Jason Smith: The scale of the problem really shouldn't affect our decision to do something about it. I used to wonder whether I could make a difference until I realized I was already making one. Why not make my impact positive and intentional? This brings up the question of which solutions will fit the scale of a global problem. Most people agree that energy efficiency and renewable energy are the way to go. The dispute hinges on how quickly we can get renewables to market. We can't simply wait for the markets to catch up. We must act now. For that reason, I think DriveNeutral can make a huge difference. First, we help to develop and mature the energy efficiency and renewable energy markets by allowing the public to participate. When the public votes with its dollars, it also stays informed. I've seen DriveNeutral evoke some of the most intelligent and thoughtful conversations regarding climate change and social and technological solutions to the problem. With a critical mass of people learning and acting, we can avoid a global catastrophe. This education of community is one of the most significant things we do.

TH: The concept of making your car, or other such carbon-emitting, climate-polluting device, "climate neutral" has met some resistance from those who feel like it validates that negative behavior. What do you have to say to people who are skeptical of the program's capacity to encourage people to change their behavior and drive less?

JS: The idea of selling people indulgences so they can assuage their guilt without changing their behavior is a cynical and purely theoretical view of carbon offsetting. The evidence points to a group of people who are more active about energy use and carbon footprint reductions than nearly any other segment of American society. Our members don't just offset their footprints. They often volunteer to help spread the word about climate change. Many drive hybrids or biodiesel cars. Most adopt energy-efficient practices. Others even devote their careers to making a difference. Almost all of our members display a carbon neutral decal on their car to help inform others both about the problem and about possible solutions. As we grow and reach out to a wider audience, we need to get the right message out. Toward this end, we plan to create tools for members to track their carbon footprints throughout the year -- after they've offset -- and to create some type of personal reward for reducing their personal emissions each year. When people find they can't directly reduce, we will continue to encourage them to offset.

TH: Okay. What about those skeptics who don't believe that DriveNeutral can really "offset" or "neutralize" those emissions?

JS: By definition, when you reduce the amount of greenhouse gas in one area due to emissions in another area, this is an offset. Suppose you are on a diet of 1,500 calories a day. During the afternoon, you eat a piece of cake. So, you decide to offset the cake by eating only a salad at dinner instead of a steak. It's really that simple. This question comes up often. I think it is actually asking how you can offset when you are still emitting as much greenhouse gas as before. This goes back to my earlier point. People should reduce everything they can. Period. There is no disagreement here. But I don't know anyone who has a 100% no-direct-emissions lifestyle. We offer a way to bridge the gap between your desire to do good and the realities of daily life.

TH: DriveNeutral partners with Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX), a program that requires members to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by a prescribed amount each year; if they come in under, they can trade credits to companies who are over. How is working with the Chicago Climate Exchange different (or better) than investing in wind or other alternative energies, or planting trees?

JS: Firstly, CCX actually does allow qualifying tree-planting projects into it's trading platform. In addition, many companies generate their carbon credits through increasing their use of renewable energy such as solar power and wind energy. So in that sense, all of these different projects are a part of the CCX trading scheme. However, the protocols and rules to qualify emissions reductions in the CCX are distinct from those within the Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) market.

There's simply no accounting scheme in the RECs market and, if there were, no means of enforcing its rules. This is not the case for CCX members. The Green-e certification process has been implemented, but it is unclear how they enforce their rules or what the consequences of violating the rules really are -- aside from no longer being allowed to use the label.

In a nutshell, RECs are less reliable vehicles for neutralizing emissions. The risk of double-counting emission reductions is high, and will likely increase until laws are established that define accounting, enforcement, and scope of use. And the risk of litigation over emission-reduction claims is high because ownership can be ambiguous.

I also believe that when the U.S. adopts mandatory emissions caps and a cap-and-trade emissions program follows, RECs will be categorically excluded due to these difficulties. That is already the case in the Northeast Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

All of that said, I think it is valuable to support the development of renewable energy. The public seems willing to take some risks with RECs because they want to support the growth of the renewable energy industry, even if is difficult to verify the carbon credits. So far, DriveNeutral has approached the REC market with extreme caution. However, as long as we are transparent about the costs and benefits and have done our part to offer the highest quality RECs available, I think DriveNeutral members will be interested in participating in both markets. Our mission as a non-profit organization is to inform people about these issues. We want to be honest and clear. We can't assume all carbon credits are created equally.

TH: Do you view other carbon offset businesses such as MyClimate, Carbonfund, TerraPass and NativeEnergy as competitors or partners in a common goal?

JS: If I didn't keep up with what was happening in the industry around me, I probably wouldn't push myself and DriveNeutral so hard. We really want to host the best community of concerned and action-oriented citizens possible. In the race to stop global climate change, we are all partners before we are competitors. I believe that all of us share that sentiment. Other players in this industry help us to see our strengths and weaknesses. Aside from DriveNeutral members, these other companies are my biggest inspiration. If DriveNeutral has the same impact on them, chances are each of us will improve our offers day by day. As each of us improve, we can make a bigger overall difference on the climate change front.

TH: What's the single most important thing you think each person in the country/world can do to make it a more sustainable, cooler, TreeHugger-friendly place to be?

JS: The most significant thing a person can do is to not be afraid to care. Everything we do or don't do makes a difference. Since we are by default making a difference, why not consciously choose our impact instead of allowing inaction to be our contribution?

Jason Smith is CEO of DriveNeutral. Calculate and offset your greenhouse gas emissions at driveneutral.org/calculator.php.

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