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David F. Hales
President, College of the Atlantic

David F. Hales

David F. Hales is the president of the College of the Atlantic in Maine, which in 2007 became the first U.S. higher education institution to achieve carbon neutrality. ALL POSTS

Scientifically sound, but still problematic

Offsets are scientifically sound, but insufficient to the fundamental change needed.

The science behind the offset concept is straightforward and easy to understand. There is only one atmosphere; all emissions, when accurately measured in greenhouse gas equivalents, have equal impact. The location of the emission is irrelevant to atmospheric concentrations.

The market for offsets and the psychology of relying on offsets, however, are both problematic.

The market, not to put too fine a point on it, is filled with junk. Well meaning or not, much of what is available in the market is not real, measured, verified, or most importantly, additional. This is especially true of schemes which purport to "offset" emissions by protecting or planting trees (terrestrial sequestration).

In addition, the psychology of offsets plays to the desire to take the easiest way out of the crisis we have created for ourselves. The fundamental responsibility of all of us, individuals, families, businesses, and institutions, is to reduce or avoid GHG emissions.

On behalf of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), I chaired an extensive study on the use and value of offsets.

As a climate NetZero institution, College of the Atlantic has placed our emphasis on avoiding or reducing emissions. All of our electricity now comes from renewable sources, and we have begun the process of shifting our heating to renewable sources as well. We have tried to reduce our travel, as well as the emissions associated with the purchases, especially food, we make as a college. Our actual emissions have been reduced by about 40% over the last two years. To reach NetZero, however, we still need to offset emissions we have not yet been able to reduce or avoid.

If our investments can enable others to actually, measurably, and verifiably reduce GHG emissions, the atmosphere benefits, but that does not reduce our responsibility - or our commitment - to change our behavior to move aggressively toward real climate neutrality.

By David F. Hales  |  October 26, 2009; 1:12 PM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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