Thursday, March 13, 2008

Measuring Howard's Carbon Footprint

HoCo Exec Ken Ulman recently signed into law creation of a local Environmental Sustainability Office. One of the first tasks of the operation, according to this release, is to develop a county-wide "Greenhouse Gas Emissions inventory."

The County will measure emissions from five sectors: electricity and natural gas, vehicular transportation, agriculture, solid waste, and waste water treatment. Once the baseline inventory is completed, the County will complete a Climate Action Plan—a community wide strategy for reducing our emissions to the levels set forth in the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement signed by Executive Ulman in 2007.

“The challenge is to understand what our carbon footprint is now so we can prioritize where we need to focus first to drive the number down,” said Joshua Feldmark, the County’s Environmental Director.

The Examiner said in this story the county has budgeted $100,000 to hire a consultant to help.

The announcement reminded us of a recent New Yorker piece about the difficulties in making such an assessment. The piece focused in part on the British supermarket chain Tesco and its desire to not only cut its own energy use but develop a system of carbon labels for each of its 70,000 products to empower consumers. Here's an excerpt:

A person’s carbon footprint is simply a measure of his contribution to global warming. (CO2 is the best known of the gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, but others—including water vapor, methane, and nitrous oxide—also play a role.) Virtually every human activity—from watching television to buying a quart of milk—has some carbon cost associated with it. We all consume electricity generated by burning fossil fuels; most people rely on petroleum for transportation and heat. Emissions from those activities are not hard to quantify. Watching a plasma television for three hours every day contributes two hundred and fifty kilograms of carbon to the atmosphere each year; an LCD television is responsible for less than half that number. Yet the calculations required to assess the full environmental impact of how we live can be dazzlingly complex. To sum them up on a label will not be easy. Should the carbon label on a jar of peanut butter include the emissions caused by the fertilizer, calcium, and potassium applied to the original crop of peanuts? What about the energy used to boil the peanuts once they have been harvested, or to mold the jar and print the labels? Seen this way, carbon costs multiply rapidly. A few months ago, scientists at the Stockholm Environment Institute reported that the carbon footprint of Christmas—including food, travel, lighting, and gifts—was six hundred and fifty kilograms per person. That is as much, they estimated, as the weight of “one thousand Christmas puddings” for every resident of England.

As a source of global warming, the food we eat—and how we eat it—is no more significant than the way we make clothes or travel or heat our homes and offices. It certainly doesn’t compare to the impact made by tens of thousands of factories scattered throughout the world. Yet food carries enormous symbolic power, so the concept of “food miles”—the distance a product travels from the farm to your home—is often used as a kind of shorthand to talk about climate change in general. “We have to remember our goal: reduce emissions of greenhouse gases,” John Murlis told me not long ago when we met in London. “That should be the world’s biggest priority.” Murlis is the chief scientific adviser to the Carbon Neutral Company, which helps corporations adopt policies to reduce their carbon footprint as well as those of the products they sell. He has also served as the director of strategy and chief scientist for Britain’s Environment Agency. Murlis worries that in our collective rush to make choices that display personal virtue we may be losing sight of the larger problem. “Would a carbon label on every product help us?” he asked. “I wonder. You can feel very good about the organic potatoes you buy from a farm near your home, but half the emissions—and half the footprint—from those potatoes could come from the energy you use to cook them. If you leave the lid off, boil them at a high heat, and then mash your potatoes, from a carbon standpoint you might as well drive to McDonald’s and spend your money buying an order of French fries.”

Measurements, baselines, are no doubt important. People need a way to show progress. We recently listened to a podcast by the folks who publish the Harvard Business Review and one of the guests was talking about Prius owners. Apparently, the cars have a special fuel consumption gauge that allow drivers to see how much fuel they are using at any given time. It's completely changed the way some Prius owners operate their cars, as they try to become ever more efficient.

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