Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Life in Neutral

There's been a lot of press given to people and companies making their offices and homes "carbon neutral" of late. From personal carbon offsets (whereby people pay money for others to invest in activities that will "offset", or render neutral, their carbon emissions), to companies trading emissions on an open market to avoid the need to outlay for new technology or penalties for polluting, this is this years hot topic (so to speak).

Travellers are even getting the chance to relieve their carbon emissions by a surcharge on top of airline tickets so companies can offset the emissions on their behalf (Travellers to get chance to offset carbon, SMH, March 21, 2007).

Two of the largest architectural offices in Australia have "become" carbon neutral in recent weeks. Woodhead and Woods Bagot have both measured their outputs and set about offsetting their emissions (Architecture Bulletin, March/April, 2007). Paper usage, recycling, air and vehicle travel, electricity and energy usage are areas targeted by Woodhead for reduction. Their model as explained seems to be targeting areas for reduction, as opposed to paying a fee and not reducing loads. The Woods Bagot model appears to start with the latter, with staff able to salary-sacrifice to enable their personal lives to become carbon neutral. Woods Bagot has then taken other initiatives: encouraging 70% of their staff to walk, cycle or take public transport to work (although I wonder if this includes the top 30% of staff, i.e. directors, principals), introducing recycling schemes in their offices, employing ‘green switching’ (turning off lights in unused areas), and establishing teams of experts in sustainable design and building practice, which will perhaps increase the acceptance of sustainable development.

Naturally, the schemes offered have detractors. The fact that the scheme is offered at all brings up an issue of cost to the consumer, and whether it is simply a short-cut to doing your bit for the environment. If you can afford carbon offsetting, it is a simpler way to relieve yourself of the burden of guilt than streamlining your lifestyle or habits to reduce your impact on the environment. See Poor will pay more to reduce their carbon footprint (SMH, March 26, 2007), for a brief, yet concise article on this part of the subject. And you're not going without your luxuries, at the same time.

Then, of course, you get the true science-fiction solutions to the growing problem of the global environment (Using smoke, mirrors and faux trees to tackle global warming, geoengineers offer far-out ideas, SMH, March 18, 2007). What's kind of worrying about some of the schemes in this article is that the carbon offsets people buy are financing these operations, which may or may not work. Can your carbon offset payment be considered a true "offset" if the scheme you are paying into does not actually result in any carbon reduction? Although I do find the Planktos solution particularly nice, even if it may not work all the time.

Amidst all this is the faint cry of many individuals, myself included, who are protesting that the modern lifestyle is unsustainable at current levels, let alone current growth levels. I admit my lamenting cry is lacking exposure, focussed on a circle of friends and work colleagues who don’t mind me complaining now and then. Coming back to Woods Bagot for an example, the introduction of the sustainability experts into their design teams gives the practice a chance to expose the important requirement for the spaces we live and work in to evolve, along with our lifestyles.

As a last resort, and perhaps most short-sighted of all solutions, is geo-sequestration (Burying the problem of emissions, SMH, March 20, 2007). Granted, I’m no geologist, but to me the practice of burying liquid C02 seems to be asking for trouble once this stuff starts leaching out in 20-30 years time. Lake Nyos anyone? Certainly a natural disaster when it occurred, but are we potentially turning more of the earth into danger zones by pumping this stuff underground?

No true long term solutions are offered by any of these offset schemes. How are they policed? If you pay a few hundred dollars a year to offset your carbon emissions from your vehicle use and power consumption, who is checking that twenty trees are planted in its place? Who takes care of the trees so that they grow to their full carbon-soaking status? As an earlier article states, “Environment groups agree planting trees is the least effective way of offsetting emissions.” At the moment, there’s no other way to offset current energy uses. True ‘green power’ is a fair way off satisfying the mass market. Without fail, somebody is unhappy with coal, nuclear, solar, wind, methane, or any offered source of energy.

Personally, I find wind power a great solution to energy supply for home and office. But apparently that kills too many birds a year to be ecologically friendly. Solar is the next best thing, but storage of energy is the problem, as batteries can be unsound when it comes to the environment.

- Wind and solar for energy.
- Hydrogen powered cars and mass transport.
- Intelligent design for climate.

Its putting them together in a socially acceptable package that’s the trouble.

Insert tagline here…

No comments: