Built on Guilt - Carbon Offsets


Carbon offsets are making the rounds. The idea is to balance out the carbon generated by an electronic device by paying for an effort to reduce that carbon; the most common offset method is to plant trees, although you can buy credits through the Chicago Climate Exchange as well.

Carbon offsetting is now a part of several green computing schemes. Dell has the Plant a Tree for Me, Via has the Clean Computing Initiative, Kudos IT Systems has something going, etc. Some vendors, such as Via, include the price of the offsetting in the product. Others, such as Dell , make the offsetting fee optional, but then use 100 percent of it to reduce the emissions.

There are a lot of issues here - the schemes are not regulated, the price and method of offsetting varies wildly from one offsetter to another, there is no agreement that offsetting even works. And since offsetting fees are essentially charitable donations, the model can be viewed as marketing ploy or (worse) a system to extract dollars from guilt-ridden consumers. This is similar to the indulgences of the 15th and 16th centuries, where the Dutch literally paid for their sins. Finally, the model encourages consumption, particularly for the rich who would rather pay a fee and slap a sticker on something than change their lifestyle.The biggest point for me is that none of the schemes take into account the carbon effects of the materials that go into making the computer or chip, which is estimated to be up to 10 times the weight of the final product. This is far worse than cars and refrigerators, which only use one or two times their weight in raw materials. PC World is producing a machine that will in fact account for the manufacturing costs, which will supposedly be out in early Summer. I'm very interested in the price tag.

Any one of these issues gives me pause; taken together, they evoke a strange combination of confusion, anger, compassion, and weirdness. It's an odd feeling, like the one I had when I was asked to give for the Katrina victims or the 9/11 disaster. Pedantically, it just seems impossible that the carbon problem will be solved at $2 per laptop, and with the addition of for-profit intermediaries such as Terrapass, the situation is more confused; is my guilt being sold to the lowest bidder where they pocket the difference, or am I contributing to a valuable and worthwhile cause? If it's the former, I just don't care how many solar power plants they fund; having my feelings converted into a fiduciary instrument is just plain wrong, and having consumers foot the bill for every infrastructure crisis that comes along isn't right either.

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