This year at Grio, we decided to explore how we could reduce or offset our carbon footprint. Going carbon neutral means considering the carbon emitted as a result of all our company actions, and finding ways to reduce or offset those emissions. For small technology companies, carbon emission sources are things like running servers, the manufacturing and transportation involved in ordering supplies, and transportation to and from offices.
So, what would it take for Grio (or any small tech company) to become carbon neutral? While the topic of carbon offsets is vast, the following could serve as a primer for those small businesses looking to do their part in a world of rising temperatures.
The Path to Carbon Neutrality
There are two strategies that we can employ to become carbon footprint: reducing emissions and purchasing offsets. Although reducing emissions is an important first step, for small technology companies, we typically can’t go much lower. With remote work and minimal company travel, our company-related emissions are already very low, and there often aren’t any further reductions in physical supplies or servers that can be made. For these reasons, offsets are important means for small technology companies such as ours to reach neutrality.
What are offsets? Carbon offsets are credits that can be purchased from a provider. 1 credit is equivalent to 1 metric ton (MT) of CO2 offset. Purchasing offsets is a convenient way of financially contributing to a project that in some way reduces emissions or helps to sequester CO2. Providers can be either brokers for organizations who run these types of projects, or they can organize and manage the projects directly. Generally, reputable providers ensure that their projects are certified by independent entities – more on this later.
Voluntary vs. Compliance Markets
Carbon credit markets can be categorized into two types: voluntary and compliance. When companies choose to take the initiative to strive for carbon neutrality of their own volition, they purchase offsets from the voluntary market (this is the category Grio falls into). The compliance market, by contrast, is the purchase of offsets as mandated by governments. This can be a requirement for heavily polluting industries to do business, which can be a contentious topic because it allows companies to pay to pollute.
Carbon Credit Criticism
The credit system overall has been criticized for not going far enough. It provides an avenue for offsetting emissions, but does not address the underlying behaviors that are contributing to the pollution. Carbon offsets have been likened to purchasing indulgences from the Catholic Church in bygone times. Indulgences could have had the effect of actually increasing the amount of undesired behavior (sinning) because people felt that they could buy their way to salvation. In the same way, offsets are often used by the super wealthy as an excuse to burn large, unnecessary amounts of carbon. Another criticism of offsets is “perverse incentives” where it can be possible for companies to gain tax or other financial advantages by polluting more.
Types of Offsets
The cutting edge of carbon offset technology is direct carbon capture, which is a process of removing CO2 directly from the atmosphere and sequestering it underground. Although this holds promise for the future, it is currently done at a small/pilot scale and at a price point that not many small businesses could afford (compare ~$1200/MT CO2 for direct capture vs. $10-25/MT CO2 for other offsets).
‘General offsets’ is the broad term used for carbon offset projects that can either prevent carbon from being used or increase the storage of carbon on the planet (the length of time it is stored for, “permanence,” is an important consideration for the efficacy of the credit). Providers that sell carbon credits for general offsets may run the projects themselves, or work with partner organizations to complete them. One of the most well-known examples of general offsets is tree planting, where you pay for a certain number of trees to be planted corresponding to the amount of carbon you have generated.
Tree planting offset projects are scrutinized for their impracticality as a major proportion of the offset market. Consider the numbers. The average American emits ~2 metric tons of CO2 per month. At our current population of 331M Americans, this means an output of 7.9B MT per year. While forests differ widely in their ability to capture carbon, one estimate has an acre of mature forest capturing 2.6 MT metric tons of carbon per year. So, to account for the emissions of all Americans, we would need to see mature forest on 3.0B acres or 4.7M square miles of land. Since the entire surface area US is 3.5M square miles, this approach isn’t enough to solve the problem. Additionally, trees that have just been planted won’t reach their full capacity for sequestering carbon for a very long time. Finally, trees can also become sources of carbon pollution themselves in events like forest fires or if the trees are harvested for other uses.
Aside from tree planting, a few other offset options we have come across are:
- Wind farms or hydroelectric plants as an alternative to fossil fuel burning
- Providing efficient solar stoves to impoverished communities as an alternative to burning other fuels for cooking
- Providing clean drinking water as an alternative to boiling unclean water which is energy intensive
Vetting the efficacy of offset projects can be done by searching for those that have been given the seal of approval by a trustworthy certifying organization. There is no single regulation standard, and some may be less reputable than others. A place to start your search are the well-known carbon credit certifying agencies of Verra, Gold Standard, and the American Carbon Registry.
Ready, (Off)set, Go ?
The process to purchase offsets is simple, though we found that transparent support for small business is lacking in the voluntary market. Many of the available tools do not present base calculations for transparently calculating and offsetting small business carbon emissions. We are still continuing to research and vet our options to yield an accurate and trustworthy result.
The first step of the carbon offset process is to calculate your business footprint. There are an overwhelming number of options to do this, which generally fall into the categories of fast and imprecise (perhaps oversimplified), or very precise, transparent, and labor-intensive. Precision is important, however, these more accurate calculator spreadsheets could take a dedicated employee weeks to complete – not practical for a small business. Data on the average footprint of a small tech business is also not readily available – it would be great to have a “rule of thumb” calculation that was relatively reliable.
Once a confident footprint has been calculated, the steps that remain are to select a reputable provider (and possibly an individual project), set the dollar amount for the number of metric tons of carbon to offset, enter a credit card, and receive confirmation.
Carbon neutrality is a complex topic. There is no single place to reliably research all the information to make a decision for our company. There is also potential for fraud, and examples of “greenwashing” where companies end up choosing a substandard provider that is more focused on appearances than outcomes.
Our Grio carbon neutrality roadmap looks like this:
- Try a variety of additional carbon emission calculators and record their outputs. Discard outliers or suspicious results. Take the 5 most trustworthy calculator outputs and use the largest number as Grio’s carbon emission value.
- Research reputable projects vetted by reliable certifying bodies.
- Make a commitment to offset Grio’s 14 years of business emissions through the chosen project(s).
Is your small tech company also on the journey to carbon neutrality? If so, we’d love to hear your stories and experiences in the comments.