Proportions of Climate Neutrality

Response to article in Wall Street Journal, 12/30/2008, “Green Goal of ‘Carbon Neutrality’ Hits Limit.”

I have appreciated the recent series of articles by Jeffrey Ball questioning the claims of companies like Dell and Apple about the pursuit of climate neutrality, or “greenness” more generally, but think they miss some basic issues. Climate neutrality is, after all, an accounting technique, balancing the books of emissions with low carbon power purchases.

The Dell article raises some fundamental questions. The first is about the “embodied” energy used in producing the components and services purchased by Dell, and the second is about the energy used by the consumers once they plug in their Dell computers. I don’t mean to let Dell off the hook, but in the current scheme their suppliers and customers do have to account for their own carbon emissions, so the accounting question is firstly about double counting of credits or of emissions.

The current carbon footprint methods focus almost exclusively on operating energies, on the annual energy used to make or do things, so the carbon produced by suppliers and by consumers has to be accounted for differently than that emitted under the direct control of Dell in its operations. Of course Dell should be held accountable for the energy used in its supply chain or to operate its products, but those require a secondary set of accounts and different strategies.

In terms of strategies, I would argue that low-carbon power purchases are only meaningful to offset the direct operating energies of the company, not the embodied or post-purchase energies, and even then only in proportion to real reductions in operating energies. For example, wind power purchases (or RECs) used to achieve climate neutrality should only be credited up to the amount of the other reductions or efficiencies achieved within the company. The proportion between the two might actually be a better measure of this aspect of greenness, and also reflects better business decisions. Intelligent reductions in energy efficiency save money, while low-carbon power is typically more expensive.

"Counting Clouds" Emissions Associated with Dell