You've likely heard the term "carbon neutral." It's applied to individuals, organizations, and even products that produce a net sum of zero carbon emissions. They often achieve this tricky feat by purchasing carbon offsets or credits, which are financial instruments representing a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, to make up for emitting X tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year, a company might invest millions of dollars in planting forests or building clean energy sources, such as solar panels and wind farms.
Unfortunately, the carbon-neutral trend is still young, and achieving carbon neutrality is an inexact science, a point well highlighted in a recent Wall Street Journal article that focused much attention on Dell's proclamation that it had achieved carbon neutrality earlier this year.
[ What's the potential cost of emitting GHGs? Please read "CO2 spewer? See you in court!" ]
Notably, Dell isn't the only company out there aspiring to become carbon neutral. You can add organizations such as Yahoo, Google, Timberland, and News Corp. to that list. (Other companies, such as HP and IBM, aren't being quite as aggressive, instead working to reduce their carbon footprints.) I suspect that the WSJ could have focused on any of these companies and found inconsistencies. I'd wager that Dell's repeatedly stated aspiration to be the greenest technology company on the planet simply makes it a more tempting target.
One of the problems with investing in carbon offsets is that it can be tough to measure what you're really getting for your money -- if anything -- in so far as reducing your company's carbon footprint. For example, in the WSJ article, the writer reports that "some of those improvements would have occurred whether or not Dell invested in them, according to some of the companies involved. That suggests Dell isn't ridding the atmosphere of as much pollution as it claims."
The article deteriorates into almost a "he said, she said" account, where Dell states that the programs it's invested in wouldn't have been feasible without its funding. In some case, the funding recipients agree: For example, a representative of Conservation International says its project to protect a threatened forest in Madagascar wouldn't have occurred without Dell's investment. The company is offsetting about 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually through the project.