Monday, 16 April 2012

What is a "carbon footprint", and what does it mean to be "carbon neutral" or "carbon negative"?

A carbon footprint is a measure of the impact our activities have on the environment, and in particular climate change. It relates to the amount of carbon emissions produced in our day-to-day lives through burning fossil fuels for electricity, heating, transportation, etc.

Carbon neutrality, or having a net zero carbon footprint, refers to an organization or individual that has reduced the net climate impact of their operations or activities to zero, usually after purchasing offsets in a quantity equal to their total emissions after reduction efforts.

Carbon negative, therefore, is further offsetting the amount of carbon emissions to a level that is greater than the amount of carbon emissions the operation produces itself. A carbon negative operation is not only taking responsibility for its own carbon emissions but is also reducing the total carbon emissions produced by the rest of the world.

TD Bank for example, who has attained carbon neutral status over a year ago, has opened what its says is the first bank branch in the U.S. that generates as much energy as it uses. By installing solar panels on the roof that will be connected to the utility gird, the branch expects to produce more clean energy than it will use.
Steps to becoming Carbon Negative

It is becoming increasingly popular for companies to claim that specific parts or their entire operation is carbon neutral. There are a number of ways for companies to become carbon neutral and most require the use of carbon offsets. Carbon offsets are the “currency” for offsetting. They are quantified in metric tonnes of CO2 reduction, i.e. one carbon offset equals one tonne of emissions reduction made through selected and verified carbon projects. Carbon offsets can be purchased on a voluntary basis or to meet regulatory requirements. By purchasing carbon offsets, a company is able to make the significant leap from being “energy efficient” or “environmentally conscious”, to being carbon neutral or even carbon negative. There are a number of carbon offset venders established around the world that offer carbon offsets for companies interested in the voluntary carbon offset market. Carbon offset venders generally recommend a similar method for achieving carbon neutrality.

Less Emissions Inc. (the top ranked carbon offset vender for Canadian companies according to the 2009 survey by the David Suzuki foundation) suggests these three steps:

1. Conserve
Reduce your environmental impact through direct efforts to reduce energy consumption (eg limiting night lighting) and increase energy efficiency (eg lighting retrofits); reduce transportation- related emissions (eg. Implementing anti-idling policies for fleet vehicles, and choosing videoconferencing to connect remote employees rather than traveling by air)

2. Switch to green
For those products and services that must be consumed, select environmentally lower-impact alternatives where available. These could include green power for electricity requirements, green cleaning products, and FSC-certified paper.

3. Offset
When best efforts have been made in the preceding areas, offset only those unavoidable emissions that remain, for example, those associated with necessary air travel or ground transportation.