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Americans try to shift into 'carbon neutral'

To combat global warming, many try to remove as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they add to it.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 6, 2006

Are you living "carbon neutral" – or better yet, "carbon negative"? Have you gone on a "carbon diet"? Are you shrinking your "carbon footprint" on the earth or aiming for a "net zero" lifestyle?

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If so, you've got lots of company, including celebrities, sports teams, airlines, moviemakers, tour operators, and at least one college. They're all trying to make sure that they're removing at least as much carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide, or CO2) from the atmosphere as they add from heating their homes or businesses or traveling by car or airplane.

Americans have been shutting off lights, stuffing insulation into attics, and carpooling to save gas at least since President Jimmy Carter pulled on his cardigan and talked to the nation about saving energy nearly three decades ago.

In the 21st century, though, the conservation message has changed: While fossil fuels such as oil and coal continue to dwindle and become more expensive, burning them now has an almost certain link to the warming of the planet's atmosphere, creating a rapidly changing climate that could wreak havoc.

People are eager to help, and going "carbon neutral" has become a popular answer. The New Oxford American Dictionary recently proclaimed "carbon neutral" as its Word of the Year for 2006. "The increasing use of the word 'carbon neutral' reflects not just the greening of our culture, but the greening of our language," says editor in chief Erin McKean. "When you see first-graders trying to make their classrooms 'carbon neutral,' you know the word has become mainstream."

Polls back up the editors' choice. Americans now say climate change is the country's most pressing environmental problem, according to a recent survey from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Just three years ago, it ranked only sixth on a list of 10 environmental concerns.

Becoming "carbon neutral" involves two steps, environmentalists point out. The first is to reduce carbon emissions through familiar conservation measures: replacing incandescent light bulbs with fluorescent bulbs, using public transit, and so forth. Many online "carbon calculators" help individuals or businesses assess how much carbon they are emitting.

But that only reduces their carbon emissions. To get to zero, they'll need to buy "carbon offsets" by sending money to projects that replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind-power generators, or to projects that remove carbon dioxide from the air, such as tree farms.

For example, a new business-class airline, Silverjet, plans to add a levy of about $26 to its transatlantic fares that will be sent to carbon-reducing projects to offset the carbon burned during the flight.

But some environmentalists worry that the idea of going "carbon neutral" could be detrimental if it leads to people only buying offsets and not changing their lifestyles.

"The concept of carbon neutrality is great. But it's one thing for people to do things to reduce their carbon emissions in their own lives; it's another thing for people to buy credits or offsets counting on someone else to clean up their act," says Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming project. "It would be bad if it has the impact of creating sort of 'papal indulgences' that people feel that they're allowed to buy a gas-guzzling SUV or otherwise pollute in ways that they could avoid because they can pay someone else to plant some trees in Guatemala."

Offsets alone aren't going to achieve the greenhouse-gas reductions that are needed, adds Charles Miller, a spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. "We've got to learn to use energy more efficiently, and we've got to reduce our consumption of energy."

It's a dangerous way to "let people off the hook," agrees Mary Rosenblum, an author who writes science-based novels set in the near future. In her forthcoming book, "Water Rights," the US is faced with desertification from a vastly changed climate. "It's what our future will probably look like if we don't do anything about it," says Ms. Rosenblum, who lives near Portland, Ore.

"If you can drive three SUVs and charge up a couple of hundred bucks [of carbon offsets] on your Visa and then think, 'OK, I've done my share,' we're not going to change anything," she says.

Other environmentalists say influencing what China and India do about their growing carbon emissions will be much more significant than the feel-good efforts of Americans to become carbon neutral.