“Carbon neutrality” is a lost phrase from the 2008 election cycle, a byword from the time when both Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns acknowledged the reality of global warming. But it’s making a surprise comeback in 2015, gathering cultural force this week as the United Nations — helped by the star power of actor Edward Norton — launched an online portal where anyone can help save civilization with a credit card and a computer.
The UN effort, called “Climate Neutral Now,” is driven by the fear that we’re careening toward catastrophic climate change, and it’s going to take everyone, not just governments, to avert disaster. For individuals, the UN said, that means using the website to measure individual carbon footprints, reduce them as much as possible, and buy credits designed to offset the heat-trapping pollution they can’t avoid.
In the 2008 election, both Republican and Democratic candidates put themselves on some kind of a carbon diet, following the likes of celebrities (George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio) and former vice president Al Gore. The doomed John Edwards campaign led the way.
This year, the Clinton campaign has made the same pledge. But reducing emissions and becoming climate neutral is easier said than done. Inside the sprawling world of the United Nations, only 10 organizations are currently carbon neutral, according to Janos Pasztor, Assistant Secretary-General on Climate Change. Other agencies — including the UN Secretariat — won’t reach that goal until at least 2020.
"We all need to take personal responsibility to combat the threat of climate change,” Norton said in a statement, announcing his own personal commitment. “Join me in the Climate Neutral Now initiative to help reduce the impact of climate change and offset carbon emissions.”
He was joined by Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the organization in charge of a landmark summit in Paris this December. She expects the summit to yield a historic agreement to reduce emissions, but the efforts of individuals will still be needed to keep the planet within the range of warming that scientists consider to be safe.
“Over time, the need for offsets is going to decline as energy systems become ever more low carbon, healthy ecosystems like forests expand and we arrive at a climate neutral world in the second half of the century,” she said.
In the meantime, she pledged to offset the emissions of her entire family, saying there are “no excuses” for others not to follow her lead. The new UN website makes it seems as easy as online shopping.
People calculate their climate footprint by providing information about their diet, transportation habits, commitment to recycling, and overall energy use. The screen blinks and then up pops a personalized number: Your share of the blame for fouling the atmosphere.
Then users can buy credits on more than 8,000 projects in 107 developing countries, like renewable energy initiatives in India or reforestation projects in Brazil. Each project comes with a price tag showing the dollars required to offset the equivalent of one ton of carbon.
In the case of a clean biomass power plant in India, for example, the price is $3.50 a ton. So for the average American, whose carbon footprint is about 17 tons a year, a clean carbon conscience could be bought for as little as $60.
Is the carbon neutral movement just a gimmick, though? The green world is divided on this point. The Natural Resources Defense Council calls it “a tool, not a golden ticket.” But purists like the author Naomi Klein compare it to the “indulgences” once sold by the Catholic Church, arguing that we all need a larger reformation on carbon.
But Figueres believes that Climate Neutral Now will help such a reformation, sending cash to clean energy projects. She also believes it makes moral sense, giving people a way to address pollution that’s unavoidable and otherwise unfixable at the moment.
“Our emissions are not entirely under our control,” Figueres said. But we do control our money, and with the new UN website we can spend it on a carbon-free future. “There is no excuse for anyone,” she added. “Be climate neutral now.”