Carbon neutrality is not enough on its own

opinion piece - the column is called 'Sustainable IT'

People are becoming increasingly familiar with the term “carbon footprint”.

Also becoming increasingly en vogue: being “carbon neutral”, which ought not to be confused with being “carbon free”. The latter, to me, means somehow managing to produce zero carbon dioxide through your business processes.

Compare that to carbon neutrality, which means an organisation measures its carbon footprint and then invests in projects, or “carbon offsets”, intended to negate or make up for its emissions.

One of the more popular ones is Dell’s “Plant a Tree for Me” programme. Users can donate money to plant trees to offset the carbon produced by, say, a new server or PC.

Neat and tidy, sure, and hey, it’s a good cause. But is it the best use of resources for a company that wants to be better steward of the environment?

Another carbon offset strategy: Put money towards non-polluting alternative energy projects. Rackspace is among companies employing that strategy for its US datacentres as part of its ambition to become carbon neutral. It uses the fossil-fuel-dependent electricity itself but buys offsets for a wind farm and a methane project.

Again, a good cause, but is that really the best strategy a company can adopt to reduce its environmental impact?

I am not intending to knock Rackspace or Dell; these offsets are just part of their respective carbon-reduction plan. What I’m driving at here is the bigger picture — the fact of the matter is, there are better ways for organisations to reduce their carbon footprint.

Take virtualisation, for example: Rather than not making any changes in your datacentre and then paying money to some other organisation to offset your server usage, how about using virtualisation so that you can get rid of some of the hardware you have, or postpone buying more anytime soon? You save on your energy and cooling bills and get more bang out of the floor space in your facility.

Or how about putting your carbon-offset fund towards a project such as what HP has just introduced: a power-capping tool that you can use to control how much energy each server in your datacentre consumes? You have the carbon-offset benefit, but you’ve made an investment in your company that pays off in the long run.

I can keep listing projects that will have these benefits: solar panels, such as Google and Microsoft have installed; telecommuting programs such as Sun and Xerox have; PC-power management tools; and more energy-efficient desktops.

There’s another important difference between outsourcing your carbon-offsetting efforts and implementing them at your company: once you’ve signed a cheque and handed it over to CarbonCappers Inc, you can’t really be sure whether the dough is going to erect windmills or be spent on something else.

I say that because The Financial Times recently reported on “widespread failings in the new markets for greenhouse gases, suggesting some organisations are paying for emissions reductions that do not take place”.

Think of it this way: If you have an ideal weight in mind, the healthiest route is a sensible diet and exercise regime. Eventually, you’ll achieve the poundage you desire. Sure, you could subsist on diet soda and celery for a couple of weeks and hit that weight goal sooner, but would you really be better off? Save the carbon offsets for shedding the last pounds of carbon, after you’ve used your other energy-conservation options.

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Tags technologycarbon neutrality

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