Is Carbon Neutrality Actually Possible?

It would seem that the two big buzz phrases of late are “Viral Marketing” and “Carbon Neutral”. We’re not going to touch the viral marketing stuff simply because you can’t make something viral no more than you can make someone spontaneously combust – you can only look at it afterwards and say, “Hey, that was pretty cool!”.

Colleen came home the other day with an information pack about Fiji water that she received from our local Tea Emporium. In the marketing stuff was the claim that Fiji water is environmentally conscious to the degree that they are ‘carbon negative’ – no, not just carbon neutral like the rest of us poor saps, but carbon NEGATIVE… Carbon negative? Seriously?

I grew up involved in the woodstove and gas fireplace heating business. My parents ran a very successful distribution company here in Ontario (Canada) and for most of my life I have understood how the carbon cycle worked, why woodstoves are you best source of heat, and why natural gas is the root of all evil. To bring everyone up to speed, here are the basics provided by WoodHeat.org:

The Carbon Cycle

Using energy from the sun, nature’s carbon cycle goes around, from the atmosphere to the forest and back. Here is how it works. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air as they grow. In fact, about half their dry weight is this absorbed carbon. As old trees die and decay, or are consumed in a forest fire, their carbon is again released to the air as carbon dioxide. This is nature’s carbon cycle.

When firewood is used as an energy source, part of the natural carbon cycle is brought into our homes to heat them. A fire on the hearth releases the solar energy stored by the tree as it grew. If the entire fuel cycle is considered, a clean burning fireplace will heat your home more efficiently and with lower environmental impact than any other fuel option.

The other fuel options — oil, gas and coal — are fossil fuels, and when they are burned, old carbon that was buried deep within the earth is released to the atmosphere. The rising concentration of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel use is linked to global warming, climate change and the unusual weather we’ve seen in recent years.

A wood fire does not contribute to global warming because no more carbon dioxide is released than the natural forest would release if left untouched. Using wood for heat means less fossil fuels burned, less greenhouse gas emissions, and a healthier environment.

Pretty simple, straight forward, and more importantly – TRUE. As a source of heat, burning wood is considered carbon neutral – it doesn’t add more than what is already there. Heating with gas brings up carbon removed from the environment millions of years ago and it is added to our existing environment – carbon positive.

Although this is good, and don’t get me wrong, it is good, yet where do we draw the line on what is carbon negative, neutral, or positive?

  • using an efficient woodstove for heat = neutral
  • woodstove delivered to your house by truck = carbon positive
  • stove moved around warehouse by forklift = carbon positive
  • truck bringing stove from train to warehouse = carbon positive
  • train traveling across Canada from mfg to distributor = carbon positive
  • truck from mfg to train delivering woodstoves = carbon positive
  • forklift at mfg warehouse = carbon positive
  • stove production process = carbon positive
  • truck brining steel from shipyard to make stove = carbon positive
  • boat carrying steel from China to Canada = carbon positive
  • steel production in China = carbon positive
  • etc., etc., ETC.

After all these positive inputs into our environment, we finally have a product which at it’s best can only be neutral. It can’t actually do anything about all the carbon which has been released into the environment and we’re left with a product that can only not add more… This is good? Oh sure, when compared to everything else, it is the best solution but that’s like saying “during my murderous rampage I was considered ‘murder positive’, yet now that I’ve stopped killing people I’m ‘murder neutral’ and that’s better than the alternative”..

It isn’t about the quality of products, or the options we as consumers currently have – it’s about where do we draw the line at what is carbon, well, whatever?

Fiji water claims:

We are reducing the amount of carbon in our atmosphere by cutting emissions across our products’ entire lifecycle, and we are investing in forest carbon and renewable energy projects to take us beyond carbon neutral, to carbon negative.

Ok, don’t understand much of that but they appear to be on the right track with something or other. Let’s continue:

We will continue to reduce CO2 emissions across the entire lifecycle of our products, and by 2010 our products will require 25% fewer emissions to produce and deliver

Currently their products (bottled water remember) require the full 100% CO2 emissions, yet by 2010 they will require 25% less, leaving a full 75% of CO2 emissions required. Right, so by 2010 they’re looking at saving 25% on today’s levels.

By 2010, 50% of our energy will come from renewable sources like wind to power our bottling facility in Fiji, and bio-diesel to replace traditional fuels used in transportation

If I get this straight, by 2010, 50% of their energy requirements will come from happy green sources like wind, and the other 50% will come from satan’s diesel-burning generators (for the record, Fiji’s current green power supply and future green power supply investments are impressive and should be looked at by most countries). Are we to equate that this 50% change over to green power is equivalent to a 50% reduction in CO2? If we are, then we’re at a total of 75% reduction, on a COMBINED TOTAL of 200% requirement… It ain’t 75% of 100% with only 25% more to carbon freedom, no, it’s 75% of 200%. (I’ve got $100 in emissions debt that we plan to save $25 on, and we’ve got $100 in energy debt that we’re going to save $50 on. We’ve saved a total of $75 on a total of $200 debt – or 37.5%).

It is good to see more companies using bio-diesel in their transportation needs, yet Fiji water can only use bio-diesel in THEIR transportation from bottling to boat. Last time I checked, shipping lines still use good old diesel and are some of the least efficient methods of transportation around. Send a skid of bottles by air freight? Bah – even worse. Although there is something mildly amusing when you think of shipping water by boat, we don’t count the carbon excess of getting their product from when it leaves their tree-hugging truck all the way to Toronto, Ontario some 8,000 miles away?

The site then goes on to say that they’re investing in forests to help reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Excellent – the first actual NEGATIVE IMPACT (in the good, um, negative way).. They further claim that they’ve hired a company to track their carbon footprint from production all the way to post-consumer which if you ask me is an insane amount of math to a degree that makes me wonder if it is even possible. You’re telling me that you can actually come up with an accurate carbon amount for say a years production, sent all over the world, into homes, and then into recycling or landfill? I can see coming up with a number to a certain degree, but how do they know if I drove to the store or walked to the store to get their water, and whether or not I actually recycle or not?

I do like the initiative, yet here you are implementing all these carbon savings just so you can bottle water and send it all over the world. Are you taking into account the carbon footprint of the companies required to actually get your product to my door (shipping companies, distribution centres, employees who have to drive to these companies) then into the landfill recycling box, then truck, then sorting facility, then trucked to a processing plant, then trucked again to a manufacturer, etc. etc..?

The big question is where do you draw the line and say that this company is carbon neutral/negative and this one is not when they all rely heavily on carbon positive support?