Sunday, January 27, 2008

Can Anything Really Be Carbon Free?

My fiance and I recently purchased equipment from Yakima to mount our bikes in our truck bed. The sticker on the outside of the package said "Carbonfree with" My first thought was, "I bet that makes more people buy this particular brand." But then I really got to thinking about what it would mean to be "carbon free."'s slogan is, "Reduce what you can. Offset what you can't." The organization accepts tax-deductible contributions and uses them to support carbon-reducing projects.

While carbon offsets are a great idea, it still doesn't seem to me that anything could really be carbon free. Yeah, we can buy carbon offsets for all the carbon we end up producing, but does that include everything? What about the carbon emissions produced by the shipping of this bike mount? What about the carbon used in the steel that makes the bike mount in the first place? What about the carbon emissions from the production of the plastic packaging? It seems to me that this could continue all the way down to the carbon dioxide produced by the humans manufacturing and selling the bike mount.

When you think about things in a life cycle analysis, carbon is inherent in nearly everything. Yes, I think carbon offsets would neutralize the major carbon emissions from manufacturing. Is that everything? I don't know. Which leaves me wondering, is anything really carbon free?

Do we need a distinction between "carbon neutral" and "carbon free"? Or does it even make a difference to consumers beyond the energy-conscious citizen?


Steven Goldman said...

My long-time concern with carbon offsets has been that, while they provide funds to further the development of alternative fuel sources and energy efficiency technology, the offsets can prove more of a conscience salve, allowing people to continue cycles of waste and consumption rather than finding a way to change their choices for the better.

And "carbon free" seems like a buzzphrase to sell products more than anything remotely based in reality.

John Losinger said...

Per Ashlynn's comment, I certainly agree that nothing can literally be "carbon-free." After all, emitting carbon dioxide is an inherent byproduct of being human.

After reading the National Geographic article "Green Dreams," I couldn't help but question whether or not the fact that most Brazilian sugarcane was harvested by hand (hence being less carbon-emitting) was a good thing.

Do we really want to regress to an antiquated, agrarian economy where human beings are subjected to brutal (and sometimes lethal) work...all in the name of reducing carbon emissions?

In my view, Brazilian cane workers dying of exhaustion is far more tangible than any of the hyperbolic effects purported by various global climate-change models.

After listening to David Sandalow (author of the book "Freedom from Oil") speak to one of our classes at the LBJ School, I was surprised to find out how candid he was about the numerous limitations of various climate-change models (most notably the exhaustive list of "assumptions" which lead to wildly differing conclusions). It seemed to me that the process, at least thus far, has been far from scientific.

Although I love polar bears as much as the next guy, the palpable effects of smog and localized, acute health problems (i.e. asthma, etc.) are much more convincing than Al Gore's apocalyptic visions of global collapse.

For a webcast of a panel discussion featuring Sandalow, as well as our beloved professor Webber, see