Firms slip into 'climate neutral'

Everyone complains about global warming. But, to paraphrase Mark Twain, nobody does anything about it.

Now you can.

Thanks to a new certification organization, consumers and businesses can buy products and services that don't pump any new net greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Already, a Kennesaw, Ga., company is selling "climate-neutral" floor coverings. A Boston-based hotel chain is poised to offer climate-neutral rooms. And a California consumer-products company has become the first firm to get its operations certified as having no net negative impact on climate change.

The idea seems to be slowly catching on in corporate America. Some dozen Fortune 500 companies are now looking to get certified by the Climate Neutral Network in Underwood, Wash.

Certification requires companies to reduce their own emissions as much as possible and offset the rest with innovative programs that help reduce the burning of fossil fuels elsewhere - at organizations with which they cross paths, for example.

"It's a new voluntary market-based approach to eliminate greenhouse-gas emissions," says Sue Hall, executive director of the network.

Corporations may not stop global warming singlehandedly by voluntarily taking responsibility for their emissions. But they can help.

"Climate change is one of the bigger issues we face today as a society and we are part of that problem," says Jennifer DuBose, a program manager for the research and development subsidiary of Interface Inc., a large commercial-carpet company.

"We just can't keep burning fossil fuels like we are," she says.

"The customer will one day demand companies do something" about global warming, adds Ken Perkins, director of environmental health and safety at Shaklee Corporation. The Pleasanton, Calif., company markets household, personal care, and other consumer products through a network of independent distributors.

Last month, the Climate Neutral Network named Shaklee, Interface, and the Boston-based Saunders Hotel Group as its first three certified companies.

Shaklee has taken the biggest step, making its entire company climate-neutral. Over the years, it steadily squeezed energy savings out of its buildings. Its new headquarters uses recycled building materials, atria to capture sunlight, and motion sensors that turn off equipment and lights when not needed.

Even so, the company still produces some 25,000 tons of greenhouse gases a year. To offset those, Shaklee is negotiating to fund several energy-saving projects, including recovering methane from abandoned coal mines and turning it into electricity, replacing kerosene lamps with solar-roof panels in India and Sri Lanka, and subsidizing the rates of a New England green-energy utility to encourage new customers.

The company is also working to encourage its 500,000 independent distributors to go climate-neutral. Its Web site (www.shaklee.com) includes a climate-change calculator to help them figure out and then offset the emissions caused by everything from their air travel to electricity use and garbage produced. "So far, we're having overwhelming response from our sales associates," says Mr. Perkins.

One of the companies' biggest challenges in going climate-neutral is figuring out the total emissions they create. When Interface decided to get its year-old Solenium textile flooring certified, it had to add up not only the emissions created by its manufacture, but also the emissions caused by other companies to extract the flooring's raw materials, the travel its sales people incurred in selling Solenium, and the energy used to clean it. That last bit proved a big surprise. Nearly one-sixth of Solenium's total emissions come from vacuuming and maintenance over its 10-year life span, the company estimates.

To offset remaining emissions, Interface aims to cut energy consumption in public schools. In Portland, Ore., it is joining Shaklee to help public schools switch from oil to natural gas. Not only will the new system burn cleaner, it will also save the school money in fuel and maintenance. In Philadelphia, Interface helped expand a program that encourages students, teachers, and custodians to find ways to save energy.

Although emissions reductions can mean short-term costs, they lead to long-term savings, says Tedd Saunders, executive vice president of the Saunders Hotel Group, which owns and operates The Lenox and Copley Square hotels in Boston. His company has cut energy use 40 percent at both hotels since 1992. Nevertheless, a one-night stay at either hotel still generates about 54 pounds of greenhouse gases. So the hotels are testing 2,000 new low-energy candelabra bulbs from Philips. At the end of this month, the hotels are expected to begin offering climate-neutral rooms for guests at a special rate.

Many environmentalists remain skeptical that such voluntary programs will have a big effect. For example, the climate network is mulling over the possibility of climate-neutral gasoline peddled by companies that do enough to offset pollution linked to their fuel sales.

"We're not signing on to the idea of climate-neutral gasoline," says Iain MacGill, energy-policy analyst with Greenpeace USA, based in Washington. "This is where it does get scary."

Drivers who fill up sports-utility vehicles with "green" gasoline shouldn't feel they've solved the problem, Mr. MacGill adds. "Greenpeace's vision is that we have to phase out fossil fuels." That will take government action.

"It's essential to have mandatory programs to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions," agrees Daniel Lashof, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and chairman of the climate network's environmental-review group. But by working with companies, "there's an opportunity to get something moving more quickly than the regulatory process. And we think there's a real market opportunity for leading companies."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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