Carbon Neutral Website Development

Carbon Neutral Websites? Check your smug factor!
Carbon offsetting is very trendy right now. Just last week my boyfriend purchased a wind power offset. I was sort of surprised as we’d never discussed offsetting, and asked him what his motivation was. "It’s for the electricity that I use, this card makes government purchase wind power." The thing is, we live in Seattle, where electricity pretty darn green already and there’s a program for utilities customers to contribute to directly.

Via the 9Rules Network I ran across Darren Stuart’s suggestion on the Web2.0 Show that websites developers become carbon neutral and that not only is it a good thing for the Earth, but it’s a great for marketing. A lot of people chimed in right away with "Oh yeah…I’ll plant a tree! Great!!" kind of stuff. A quick search for “carbon neutral website” indicates the trend has already begun (at least it has in the UK).

There’s more to offsetting than planting trees

I was both excited to see that environmental responsibility is becoming so mainstream and at once dismayed at this continual emphasis on mindless offsetting. Like most political and scientific issues, the devil is in the details. Many early offset companies actually hurt more than helped, through poor planning and lack of follow through. The validity of tree-planting offsets remain questionable both as to the long-term effectiveness of successful programs and the lack of ability to guarantee said trees will remain healthy and protected long enough to do any good in the first place.

And then there’s basic concept of carbon offsetting. Many have criticized the practice as allowing people guilt-free passes for ongoing irresponsible behavior. I agree that it should be only part of a persons efforts to do their part. I mean if you’re driving an unnecessarily gas guzzling car, indulging in excessive and unnecessary trips or think recycling only has to do with your computer desktop then purchasing a bunch of offsets shouldn’t be your only focus! I’m already gritting my teeth at the inevitable trend of smug “carbon neutral website” banners on the sites of people who’ve never even bothered recycled their hazardous electronic equipment.

Now, lest I wreak of smug myself, I must announce: I am no saint. I don’t own a car, I walk to work, I bus or bike whenever it’s reasonable. I recycle avidly (including compost and proper disposal of hazardous materials) at work. But I must admit, I don’t recycle at home as well as I could because our landlord doesn’t offer options (or take opinions!) so it’s not convenient. I borrow my boyfriends gas hungry work truck usually only when I need it, but occasionally when I’m just feeling lazy. I indulge in long, hot showers. And more I’m sure. All I’m saying is, if you’re going to offset and especially if you’re going to toot your horn about, research your options and choose responsibly!

Should you purchase offsets? And if so, which ones?

The Wikipedia entry ‘Carbon offset’ is currently very informative and cites a plethora of references, both skeptic and optimistic. This should keep you busy for a while and help you determine whether it’s the right choice, or the first choice for you. The article Shifting Into Neutral by Emily Main on National Georgaphic’s Green Guide web site should help you understand the basic differences in available offsets. Then head on over to TreeHugger.com for the latest on carbon offset providers.

10 thoughts on “Carbon Neutral Website Development”

  1. Could you check us out at Treeflights.com? We think that tree based offsets can be viable if we’re honest about the timescales, verification issues etc.

    Thanks,

    Ru.

  2. Thank you, you have brought up a very good point that has also irritated me. Once again the mindless rationale of a consumer society is trying to justify guilt with a dollar sign; the very thing that created the problem. The western mode of economics including the ideas built into business that worked on some levels horribly failed on others, creating the mess we’re all in now and will be in further no matter what However, by taking action we all have a chance of becoming better beings. Denial and gag orders to float the economics as usual boat is an issue of ethical bankruptcy and we can do so much better by seeing the situation clearly and as a great and stimulating challenge. Change is good for the organism, its in our dna.

  3. Oliver Rackham, a Cambridge University botanist and landscape historian, describes the problem succinctly: ‘Telling people to plant trees [to solve climate change] is like telling them to drink more water to keep down rising sea levels.’ – New Internationalist article by Adam Ma’anit.

    For more on the particulars of the debate over tree offsets google “tree offsets problem. The article 10 Things You Need to Know about Tree ‘Offsets’ puts much of the problem succinctly.

    Despite the subtleties that are still being debated, it’s generally accepted that planting trees in the northern hemisphere is doesn’t help at all and the sad fact is that efforts to repopulate rain forest trees have resulted in a lot of political hardship for native peoples and the trees themselves are in constant danger so I recommend against tree offsets.

    That’s not to say planting trees is bad by any stretch, trees are great and it looks like your nursery is beautiful. However, suggesting people are offsetting their carbon responsibility by funding your nursery is misinformed, at best.

  4. Mahalie, we are well aware that we’re in a minority to think that tree based offsets can be a valid part of our strategy to address climate change. Being in a minority doesn’t make you wrong! I spend a lot of time arguing these points with people on the net and so I’m familiar with all sides of the debate. Could you be specific about the particular points that you think make tree offsets bad and I’ll be happy to address them one by one.
    We have to find ways to take advantage of the immense absorptive capabilities that trees give us. To forego what is potentially our strongest weapon in this fight would be complete madness.
    When people voluntarily offset, they are choosing to take more responsibility for their emissions. its not ‘carbon responsibility’ thats offset its the carbon emisions themselves.Remember that its only a tiny, tiny minority who offset. The vast majority of people either do not know or care about the issues. Perhaps you should visit cheatneutral.com – I’m sure you will appreciate their take on offsets.

  5. Ru – This article has been researched, sources enumerated. I encourage readers to follow links and decide for themselves. I’m not here to argue with someone who’s promoting their business, I wrote this to inform people that they should research and think before they offset – that is all.

  6. OK, I’m biased. Let me declare my interst first. I have a significant share in a website that enables people to offset their carbon emmissions.

    Now for the rant.

    What is your problem with people wanting to show solidarity with a cause and helping albeit a little? If people are interested in making a difference first and formost they should reduce the amount of electricity they use. Secondly, they should try and buy their energy from a carbon neutral energy supplier. But lets face it thats not going to make your website carbon neutral, is it? So what is so wrong with offsetting there website emmissions and diaplaying a banner to let people know you are at least acknowledging the issue.

    There you are sitting in Seattle, which, incidentaly by world standards is one of the highest carbon emmitting states in the world, recycling the occassional piece of rubbish thinking your doing your bit.

    Why are you criticising people who are probably pretty like minded to you? Why don’t you invest a bit more time and energy into encouraging the naysayers to climate change to face up to the truth? Isn’t it ironic, that people who declare themselves concerned about the environment end up critisising other people who care about the environment.

    If you want to do your bit then you need to start doing a bit more than just critizing other people for trying to make a difference. Oh and you should register your site with http://www.coco2.org and display a ‘carbon neutral website’ banner.

  7. Wow, awesome! People really get their panties in a bunch over offsets (or attempts at selling offsets). Ironically, I’m a supporter and consumer of offsets. As for “what is your problem with people ‘showing solidarity’ with a cause and helping albeit a little?” – the article doesn’t answer that? I thought it was clear…all I’m asking is that people take a long hard look at what offsets they choose and their motivations for doing so. Your website is a good example of what I’m talking about – your site touts listing in a business directory for offsetting – focus is on offsetting as a marketing opportunity. Offsetting a website at a ’rounded average of 0.8 tonnes’ regardless of whether you have a distributed app on a server farm or a simple homepage with no big files has it’s own inherent flaws, but the greater question is area of focus. Any person living in a first-world country is creating much greater carbon impact just living on the planet than any website, could. Of course…everyone should reduce (FIRST), use green power and then offset for yourself, then your business…your WHOLE business, and if you’re actually netting zero on these bigger concerns, fine, offset your website. But I’d hate to see a cheap website offset make people think they’re doing their doing the world good and just relax, because it’s a drop (no, a small part of a drop) in their bucket in terms of their personal carbon impact.

    I’d love to hear what you are basing your Washington assertion on. There are many huge businesses here such as Microsoft and Boeing that undoubtedly produce a lot of carbon, never mind the lumber industry, although many such companies are also doing extensive offsets and reforestation. The Northwest is the most progressive, most offsetting, most sustainable building area in the United States. Truly, I don’t really like to argue, I do like to base my decisions and assertions on facts, or at least an educated best guess – and if there’s one there, please share it.

  8. Seems to me we’re all on the same side here Mahalie, it’s good to debate.

    The amount we ask users to offset varies according to the kind of package they have, so for a simple website on a shared account we offset 100Kg, but for company using a server we offset 2 tonnes. This isn’t as perfect a solution as we would like, but it will improve. Ultimately, given the number of users who share virtual server space we are confident that we over offset.

    I agree with you regarding the role of offsetting we want users to cut power use and switch to carbon neutral energy suppliers first and foremost.

    I’m interested in the fact that you see us as providing a marketing opportunity, the truth is I guess we are, but in order to get the marketing opportunity you have to offset your website as a minimum and our registrants are encouraged to do more than this because the more you offset the higher up the listings you go.

    http://www.coco2.org ‘touts’ carbon offsets and rewards users with a directory listing. The purpose of this twofold. Firstly, we hope in the future green conscious consummers would search for carbon friendly companies rather than companies that don’t appear to give a damn. Secondly, it allows users to verify that the ‘carbon neutral website’ badge on a website is actually paid for and offsets have been made.

    Ultimatley, we want to encourage businesses and website owners to take the issue seriously and to think beyond their homes.

    Regarding the Washington comment I made it’s based on avaerage US carbon emmission figures. Hence the world comparison. A lot of the figures are very shaky indeed, because irrespective of Washington’s actual carbon output, the real per head output would be far higher due to the large level of imported goods. So I think you are more than fair to point out that this is an assertion rather than a fact, but an assertion I am very confident about.

    That said, I think we should all try and stick to facts going forward because assertions can be denied and debates become circular.

    For the record, I do genuinley welcome your comments.

  9. I saw a button for a “Green Hosting” company on somebody’s site and clicked on it out of pure curiosity. This particular hosting company buys carbon credits, and that’s the way they stay carbon-neutral. I assumed that they would be more expensive – but they’re actually a lot cheaper for tons more space and unlimited domains! I was paying $25 a month for 2Gb hosting, and these guys have 160Gb for $8 a month. Here’s their page about the carbon credits: http://www.dreamhost.com/aboutus-green.html. I also found a couple of places who stay carbon neutral by running their offices on renewable energy, but they have no control over what happens between them and the user. The carbon credits might be paying for your ecological sins, but I think combined with less ecologically harmful practices in the actual office (like running it on renewable energy, recycling, etc.), these credits are a great idea.

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