What Does It Mean To Be Carbon Neutral?

  April 12, 2013

You've probably heard the stat: Buildings account for about 40 percent of all U.S. carbon emissions. That fact, combined with President Barack Obama's promises for stricter limits on carbon emissions and better building-efficiency standards, has led many upper managers and organizational leaders to sharpen the focus of their "go green" mandates. Now, facility executives are being told that, regardless of other "green" initiatives, reducing emissions is the highest priority. For some, that mandate means going all the way to carbon neutrality.

But the term "carbon neutral" is different strokes for different folks. Some organizations will work hard, spend a lot of money and reduce their energy use as much as possible. They'll generate what energy they do use with on-site renewable technologies, like PV panels or wind.

Others will make a concerted effort toward efficiency and then cover the rest of their energy-spend by buying carbon offset or renewable energy certificates (RECs), also known as green tags. RECs are assurances that a specified amount of energy purchased has been generated by renewable sources. It's generally considered a credible way to offset emissions - LEED offers credits for purchase of a certain percentage of renewable energy. Carbon offsets are a bit different - they simply mean something somewhere is being done to reduce the specific amount of emission purchased. Offset money could be used for projects as wide-ranging as building a solar array in New Mexico to planting trees in Brazil.

As point of clarification, most experts agree that REC or offset purchase is credible as long as it is NOT the only strategy for working toward carbon neutrality. Buying these offsets or RECs certainly shouldn’t be the main thrust of an organization's carbon neutrality strategy. If it is, these RECs or offsets essentially turn into "indulgences" or "green get out of jail free cards." Can you still emit as much as you want, and then buy your way out of your emission-related mess?

Most experts agree that the first and most important step toward carbon neutrality is to squeeze as much energy out of an organization through efficiency measures as possible. Energy efficiency is the true path to carbon neutrality - because it’s the true of spirit of being carbon neutral. You're using fewer resources and directly emitting fewer greenhouse gases.


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