Green agreements

By Miguel Paolo Celestial Published in Garage Magazine, Premier issue, August-September 2008 Scientists and experts have predicted serious repercussions if we do not act now to prevent further climate change. It seems no matter what we do, we end up damaging the environment: with the turn of a car key, a flick of a light switch, the click of a mouse, one press to dispense ice from the fridge, or a quick turn of the shower knob. The only thing left is for everybody to be penalized for hyperventilating and exhaling too much CO2 from worrying about the climate. Everything leaves a carbon footprint, they say. Al Gore has spoken and the Swedish Academy and the rest of the world have thanked him – slideshow, clout, and all – for helping point it out. “Finally!” cried the scientists, their sighs recalling polar bears swimming across icecaps, burning off fat, but without hope of reaching receding land. Awareness has spread apprehension like invisible plankton. Not undeservedly, given the possible scenarios, to wit: extreme weather that may mean worse or more frequent storms, floods, droughts, and heatwaves; the spread of diseases; drier deserts and wetter tropics tantamount to the reduction of arable land and therefore food; melting Arctic and Antarctic glaciers and mountain caps that could lead to higher sea levels and submerged cities; and the warming of the oceans that could cause the loss of habitats and the displacement or endangerment of species. There may never have been a vision as apocalyptic as what experts have predicted. Worse than Nostradamus? Yet the real question is, has the world responded with the same zeal as researchers and scientists? Have we faced this iceberg of a problem with much more weighing below the surface? Sincerity has no half-life To prevent impending catastrophe, scientists have proposed a concerted reduction of emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases through five means: using alternative or renewable sources of energy; being more efficient with energy usage; collecting or capturing carbon, methane, and other gases for storage or combustion; and preventing more deforestation. Of these four, only the first two seem relevant to the ordinary citizen. First, with the insatiable rise of fuel prices, the prospect of shifting from gasoline to biofuel

seems more and more tempting, even if a majority of motorists remain shy of hybrid electric vehicles or fuel-cell cars that run on hydrogen, much more those modified to combust used cooking oil. We are stuck with this initiative since use of other sources of energy are only up to electricity suppliers (wind, hydroelectric, and nuclear power), a matter of technology (biomass), or still too expensive for ordinary retail customers (solar energy). The second solution to prevent catastrophe – conserving energy – has not only served as fodder for activist and media campaigns, but also as inspiration for the latest runway fashions. Environmental awareness has become the new zeitgeist, the newest conversation piece, fad, and measure for coolness. It has outzenned zen, yoga, vegetarianism, and pilates, even beaten the trend of Hollywood celebrities adopting third world children. AIDS has been made passé. Eco-chic is now the next social requirement. This redefined theme has been appropriated by the billion-dollar industries of fashion, design, and general consumer products. From clothes, bags, and shoes to packaging, furniture, and automobiles, this ethic has been echoed. Down with extravagance! Welcome to the dawn of the new responsible lifestyle! But how much can we really do, are we really doing, through feedbags and organic or recyclable materials of which production, according to some recent studies at least, actually require more carbon emissions than the usual plastic? Are we really saving enough energy by installing a bed of plants on our roofs to lessen the need for air conditioning? Are we being friendly to the environment by buying another dress or pair of trousers made from organic materials and dyed organically when, to begin with, our closets do not need additional pieces for at least the next few seasons? Maybe we are merely buying into a trend to ease our consumerist consciences. Or we are probably bored with our leather bags and want more synthetics and canvas. A new and nifty car to get ahead of the Joneses? A better question: aren’t we still pressing too many buttons of too many appliances and gadgets that we have so gotten used to that we don’t dare question their necessity? This is partially answered by, a blog about “ecofriendly business”: “You could save electricity by not leaving your TV on standby, because you don’t really need to leave your TV on standby. But then again, standby mode adds functionality and improves the user experience. You could save electricity by watching less TV. You could just stop watching TV, and go for a run. Better yet plant some trees. You’d get some exercise, you’d save electricity, you’d help the carbon/oxygen balance and you’d feel good about yourself…” All it suggests is that every single sheet of environmentally friendly tissue doesn’t

seem enough to wipe away our oily excess. Buying carbon clemency So we don’t even dare to imagine radically simple lifestyles we feel are reserved to hermits, reclusive artists, and the rest of the insane. We point the finger to governments and corporations that are more capable of preventing carbon catastrophes. After all, we say, lowly consumers squirming in alibi, they are the ones that caused all this pollution in the first place. As funny as excuses may sound, what may be more tragic are governments squabbling about who has polluted more and how much environmental commitment should be required of each, like children on the guard on who gets more cookies. True, there must be fairness in everything, but not to the point that nothing gets done except endless empty chatter. To their credit though, at least they have agreed that industries have to be more environmentally friendly. Many companies have complied in “reducing” their carbon emissions, even if indirectly, through carbon offsetting. Companies produce carbon emissions via a multitude of things, from direct energy consumption, employee travel (fuel burned for transportation), equipment use and disposal (fuel and impact of byproducts and depreciated machines), raw materials (fuel used for production and processes), and recycling (extent of non-wastage). Carbon offsetting, its supporters argue, achieves the four strategies listed earlier aimed at decreasing carbon emissions. It does this by facilitating funding for projects that execute them directly. In this sense, companies are not required to reduce carbon emissions themselves, from their own operations and activities, but only to buy “carbon offsets”. Let us suspend our keen judgment and review what some corporations have contributed. Siemens and GE have innovated towards energy-efficient products through their locomotives, power reactors, jet engines, gas turbines, and lights. For the automobile industry, Toyota and Honda have produced plug-in hybrid cars, while Nissan, Mitsubishi Motors, and Mazda are developing their own versions. DuPont has saved on energy costs by using methane emitted from landfill sites to power its industrial boilers. Wal-Mart has also consumed less energy on its trucks by using auxiliary engines when they are idle or at rest stops. BSkyB has bought its offsets by helping finance renewable energy via a windfarm in Manawatu Gorge, New Zealand and a hydroelectric power project in Sandanski, Bulgaria. HSBC has paid for methane capture in Victoria, Australia and Sanbeiendorf,

Germany. Other companies doing the same in Sanbeiendorf are Radio Taxis, Avis, and Berkley Homes. Methane capture is also conducted in Greene County, US, where Silverjet as a donor. Reforestation is also a way to earn carbon offsets. Cooperative Bank has financed tropical reforestation in Kibale National Park, Uganda. The company also provides for diesel replacement in Chhatishgarh, India. The World Bank meanwhile spends for a pongamia plantation in Powerguda, India. These are just a few examples. Certainly, there may be more exemplary models of environmental awareness, but just as we should be wary of our personal intentions in going green, we should ask exactly how these corporations are motivated. Does it all come down to improving company image by presenting a green veneer of corporate responsibility, which coincidentally adds to an intangible asset called societal goodwill, or brand value? Needless to say, for-profit organizations exist for profit, and they would not do anything without financial recompense. But, can we say that even though they may only promote themselves and even exaggerate their niggardly initiatives, they are able to effect some good – reducing carbon emissions – and achieve the prescription of scientists and the target of talks and negotiations of global leaders? Is this not the same as forgiving a fashion addict who uses 50 different environmentally friendly shopping bags to match her outfits, one for every shade and degree of consumer guilt?

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