Is All CO2 Equal? Part 2

This is Part 2 of an ongoing look at CO2 offsets. Part 1 is available here.

In order to make this conversation concrete, I’m going to use the new Dell “Plant a Tree for Me” program as an example.

Before I get into it, let me explain why I’m using a competitor’s program. First, at Sun we’ve looked a number of times at doing a similar program, so its something I’m familiar with. Ultimately we’ve decided not to pursue such a program right now (for some of the reasons cited in this series), but it will consider to get serious consideration as we go forward. Second, Dell is big enough that the scale of the program provides useful data on the scalability of such programs. So I decided to go with Dell since its a familiar area, and they’re big enough to have an interesting discussion about.

My overall impressions of the Dell program are positive:

  • Planting trees is a “good thing”, and setting aside land for protected tree stands is also good.
  • Dell picked good, credible environmental partners for their program (CarbonFund and The Conservation Fund). This stuff is tricky enough that having good quality input is crucial.
  • The program is reasonably transparent. The website describes how they are calculating the offsets and provides ample links to help understand how the money will be used.
  • The Plant a Tree program has gotten good high level support from within the company and good PR backing.
  • Dell appears to have integrated it into the ordering process so its simple for customers to use.

These are the big things I’d look for in a program such as this: social benefits, solid partners, transparency, internal support and simple to use.

It is worth pointing out that Dell isn’t donating their own money, it’s a system for customers to donate their money. That doesn’t lessen the program, just the amount of credit Dell should get for its success.

More importantly, there’s no mention of whether Dell is paying into the program for their own internal system usage. Dell has over 60,000 full time employees, so if 40,000 of them are operating PCs it’s .42 tons/year each (using Dell’s numbers from the program), or around 17,000 tons of CO2/year. My sense is that if you’re asking your customers to put their money out for something, you should be willing to do it yourself.

It’s also worth noting that the program currently covers US-based consumer customers only. In my mind this is a sensible place to start. The CO2 accounting is not consistent throughout the world, and business customers who care will probably deal with offsets at a different level of accounting than worrying about each PC, lightbulb, printer, etc.

So far this program looks pretty good, so what’s my issue? My issue is with the fundamental design of CO2 offsets as they are being practiced today. Specifically, I believe there are 4 potential problems which limit the effectiveness of these programs. Not all of these apply to every program, but most have at least one of these issues. The four are:

  • Time shifting: offsetting the CO2 at a time much later than the CO2 is being generated.
  • Space shifting: offsetting the CO2 at a different place in the world than where it was generated.
  • Scalability: will the offsetting be effective if widely adopted?
  • Cheap substitutes: ignoring obvious direct offsets because they are more expensive than indirect ones.

In the next few posts I’ll explore each of these in more detail using the Dell program as an example.