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My Shrinking Carbon Footprint

By SUZANNE SCANLON

    Suddenly, everyone was worried.e We were expecting a baby, and my husband and I found ourselves involved in various conversations with friends that centered around the theme of how one might offset the clear environmental damage that inevitably comes with bringing a child into the world (not an environmentally innocuous act). One often- quoted estimate claims that the environmental impact of a child born in America is equivalent to 140 in Bangladesh. Surely, diapers were a good place to start. Before having a baby, we had no idea how many of these non-biodegradable—not to mention chemical-laden—things we’d go through each day, the results sitting in a landfill for years to come. Cloth diapers seemed like a good, if occasionally messier, idea. A growing, if small, trend of environmentally savvy parents are committed to cloth-diapering. Most cities, including Chicago, have access to at least one service (for those daunted by the prospect of all that excess laundry).
   
No sooner were we feeling virtuous than we encountered an environmental-poet parent friend who assured us that he’d done the math, calculated the impact of cloth diapering, including the resulting electricity, energy and water use, and found it to be negligibly better than buying Pampers. This seemed a somewhat faulty argument, given that plastic diapers would simply not degrade. Still, we were left feeling less convinced that our cloth diapers were the answer. We were left feeling, as often happens in the current craze to be green, slightly naive.
    Perhaps we should have listened to Ethan Greenhart, the green and ethical living advice columnist from the British magazine Spiked. Greenhart, who has two children, assures us, “Not a day has passed without me stressing to them what a burden they are on the planet, and how much better off the world would be without them. I am proud to say that they were worrying about their carbon footprint almost before they could walk.” Skewed parenting advice, to be sure, and yet, this is Dr. Spock for a guilty Generation X.
   
Speaking of guilt, even the church is getting in on the green guilt. At the beginning of Lent this year, bishops of the Church of England urged parishioners to forego the usual Lenten fasts (sweets, chocolate) in favor of a carbon fast, suggesting that the faithful give up plastic bags and excessive dishwasher use, among other carbon-friendly sacrifices.
    So where did the idea come from? Just a year ago, I needed a definition. Like many phrases that are easily absorbed as media buzzwords, it has a rather broad denotation. Writing in The New Yorker in a February, 2008 article entitled “Big Foot,” Michael Specter defines it aptly: “A person’s carbon footprint is simply a measure of his contribution to global warming.” According to one educational publisher, it was as recently as 2006 that the phrase was first used in an article in the Business section of The New York Times. By the end of the year, it could be found in articles in the Travel section and the Style section. Reducing your footprint quickly became not only financially responsible and morally imperative, but stylish.
   
Specter explores the way the push to be green has moved into moral as well as economical territory. Corporations from Kraft to Sara Lee to Marks and Spencer are competing to become environmentally responsible, a competition spurred on by “economic necessity as much as by ecological awareness.” However, like me with the cloth diapers, in the push to be green a company can lose sight of complexity. Such is the case with British food giant Tesco. Before long, foods will come with “carbon labels”, ostensibly giving customers a choice when it comes to “green consumption.” Specter quotes John Murlis of the Carbon Neutral Company, who notes that “in our collective rush to make choices that display personal virtue we may be losing sight of the larger problem.” The truth is that when it comes to measuring environmental impact, one number—like a calorie count—will not work. There are many factors, and a simplistic  equation, while it may make a customer feel better, will not accurately assess her carbon footprint.
    Still, the science is clear. Climate change is real. Large and small efforts are welcome and long overdue. To address the complex needs of larger companies, there are a number of environmental consulting groups. Carbon Solutions Group is a Chicago-based consulting firm that works with businesses to devise ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is also the Chicago Climate Exchange, North America’s only and the world’s first global marketplace devoted to the sale of carbon as a commodity. Through CCX, companies buy and sell allowances for greenhouse gas emissions. All members also “agree to reduce their emissions by a certain amount every year.”
    On an individual level, there are a number of online carbon calculators, such as the one at carbonfootprint.com, which comes with advice on how to calculate, reduce and offset.
    Along with their green admonition, the Church of England directed parishioners to Tearfund, a development agency that is set up to urge people in the developed world to reduce their energy consumption as a way to offset climate change already seen in developing nations. On average in the UK, each person “is responsible for 9.5 tons a year” as opposed to the Ethiopian average of .067 tons a year.
   
The Bishops of England have taken an admirable leadership role. One wonders when American spiritual leaders will follow suit. Despite the recent push to go green, the average American’s energy consumption is still far above any other country. Happily, here in U.S.—and Chicago—we do have some entrepreneurs, activists and innovators who are showing us all how to shrink our carbon footprint.
    In 2005, Andy Rosssmeissl, Jake Whitcomb and their professor of international environmental economics at Middlebury College, Jon Isham, had an idea about bringing carbon offsets to the mainstream by tying them to a credit card as a reward. They presented their idea at the Clean Air—Cool Planet conference that summer, and with the help of a former IBM and American Express executive, Patti Prairie, they struck up a relationship with the Bank of America. Brighter Planet now offers a credit card, the Brighter Planet Visa®, which helps build renewable energy projects and earns users carbon offsets with every purchase. They fund a portfolio of businesses with NativeEnergy to purchase permanent offsets such as wind turbines. To sign up for Brighter Planet’s credit card, call 800-511-1472—priority code FABZDA.

Published: April 06, 2008
Issue: 2008 Spring Green Issue