The Carbon Calculus – What Counts?
“Eliminate Newspapers, Save the Planet?” ran the headline on The New York Times “Green, Inc.” blog reporting on the Marriott hotel group’s decision to discontinue automatic newspaper delivery to hotel guests – a move that, according to Marriott, will cut out some 13 million newspapers and save 10,350 tons of carbon emissions annually.
This is nearly equivalent to the carbon generated by 2000 average U.S. vehicles in a year – a significant carbon savings – but was this move, I wondered, truly motivated by a desire to be “green,” a cost-cutting measure or simply yet another blow to America’s increasingly distressed Fourth Estate?
“We’re not really happy with that positioning,” said Marriott spokesperson Stephanie Hampton who told me that the decision was “not driven by an effort to be green but more based on giving customers what they want and not wanting to be wasteful.” The Marriott press release led – not with the carbon footprint reduction – but by saying that guest demand for newspapers had declined by 25 percent and that cost-savings, if any, of providing papers only to guests upon request, would vary by hotel.
All of which led me to wonder what it really means to reduce one’s environmental and carbon footprint. Environmentally preferable purchasing – choosing products made with as little ecological damage as possible – clearly has benefits as does reducing overall consumption but is canceling my newspaper subscription an equivalent boon to environmental health as saving the same amount of carbon by reducing the miles I drive or the electricity I use at home?
Do I get to take credit for purchases not made when calculating my carbon footprint reduction or only for changing well-established practices? How close to one’s core operations does a reduction in resource use have to be to merit inclusion in this calculus? If I stopped all junk mail and catalogues from arriving at my house, would I be able to claim a carbon credit – or only if I drive fewer miles this year than last? And does a manufacturing company get to take credit for improving its environmental profile when its factories are idled during an economic downturn?
Given the current overload of global warming greenhouse gas emissions, any reductions are welcome, but as we rush to be declared good carbon citizens, there are also lots of hard question to ask.