The Carbon Economy

Last week I outlined a couple options for starting to regulate our carbon emissions on a national scale. Implementing either a national carbon tax or a cap and trade system would be a huge step towards what you might call a “carbon economy”: a world where the CO2 we emit is tracked and regulated as carefully as the dollars we spend or the calories we consume.

The first saplings of the carbon economy have already sprouted. Elementary carbon footprint calculators let the curious and concerned estimate how much carbon their activities are responsible for (my footprint was about 10 tons of CO2 per year when I calculated it in November). Taking it a step further, offset programs such as Terrapass and CarbonFund have become a popular way to “cancel out” a person’s carbon footprint, with the proceeds going towards activities such as tree planting and investments in renewable energy.

But these steps are probably somewhat premature. For starters, the benefits of offset programs are hard to verify without any standards or regulatory bodies. Moreover, offsets are hardly a long-term solution: we can’t solve the climate crisis by doing the same thing as always and paying somebody else to fix it. Instead, we need to start figuring out how we can cut the carbon out of our lives for good. This means keeping careful track of the emissions we’re responsible for, down to each and every purchase we make.

The emerging field of life cycle analysis – whereby environmental impacts are identified across all stages of the production process – is making this kind of product-by-product awareness possible. Last month, for example, Jamais Cascio released a fascinating look into the carbon footprint of a cheeseburger, and concluded that every one pound burger was responsible for the emission of around 6 pounds of CO2 along its path to the consumer.

2007 has already seen the carbon economy gaining momentum. Last week, Sam’s Club announced it would be selling the first “Carbon balanced” product, a pressure washer made by Karcher. For every washer purchased, Terrapass will offset 285 pounds of carbon (the estimated emissions from two years of use). Also this month, the UK supermarket chain Tesco became the first megacorporation to formally enter the carbon economy: each one of its tens of thousands of products will soon be labeled with the amount of CO2 emitted during their production and distribution.

The rapid trajectory of the nascent carbon economy – from internet calculators for envirogeeks to a major commitment from the world’s fourth largest retailer – is nothing short of astonishing. In the coming months and years, we’ll see it continue to become a powerful influence in our lives, as the reduction of our collective carbon footprint becomes an ever more urgent priority. Imagine Tesco’s carbon labeling policy expanded to a federally-regulated system for all consumer goods. Imagine RFID tags that keep a running tally of a product’s emissons from the mine to the landfill. Imagine a carbon credit card that taxes your cumulative CO2 load. Sound scary? Just imagine the alternative.


4 thoughts on “The Carbon Economy

  1. Andrew Brock says:

    Nice review of carbon footprint awareness for consumers.

    Again the UK comes up as a leader in this. My own search for halogen free PVC replacement in wire led to a UK sourced product; and here we see consumer retail innovations in the UK-

    so, does some condition exist in the UK economy, gov’t, or in the consciousness that doesn’t here? Obviously it has much higher gas prices, more diesel use. Can these conditions be extrapolated to be or come here to the US and other countries?

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