op-ed

Chevy saves the planet for $4 per car?

General Motors has apparently had an epiphany. GM now “realizes” that it “shares the planet with everyone” and wants “to do more to help keep it clean.” So GM has pledged to buy carbon offsets representing one year’s worth of greenhouse gas emissions from the 1.9 million Chevys projected to be sold during 2011.

Under the Chevy Carbon Reduction program, GM will spend up to $40 million over five years offsetting about 8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

There is much less here than meets the eye.

First, while GM describes the program’s cost as “substantial,” it’s really not. GM expects to sell about 10 million Chevys over the next five years — so the actual expenditure works out to about $4 per car. That triviality will be matched by the program’s environmental impact.

Human activities emit about 40 billion tons of greenhouse gases annually. So if all goes as planned, GM’s program will reduce global human greenhouse gas emissions by about 0.004 percent over the next five years. GM calls this “a start” and denies that the program is “greenwashing.”

In fact, GM states on its web site that, “This is really about making a positive statement to our customers. And letting them know that we are committed to doing the right thing.” But merely claiming green-ness while accomplishing nothing tangible for the environment fits the definition of greenwashing perfectly — “the deceptive use of green PR or green marketing in order to promote a misleading perception that a company’s policies or products are environmentally friendly,” according to Wikipedia’s definition of the term.

And it’s quite possible that the Chevy Carbon Reduction program will accomplish even less than the company believes since it involves the purchase of so-called “carbon offsets.” GM’s $4-per-Chevy expense will be directed to the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, an Oregon-based non-profit that will “invest” the money in purportedly climate-friendly projects like planting trees, and solar and wind power.

But carbon offsets can be murky endeavors — so much so than when the Government Accounting Office (GAO) reported on them in 2008, concerns about their legitimacy overflowed into the report’s title, “Carbon Offsets: The U.S. Voluntary Market Is Growing, but Quality Assurance Poses Challenges for Market Participants.”

The basic problem with offsets is that buyers can be ripped-off fairly easily. Offset sellers claim the proceeds go toward efforts to prevent the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But as greenhouse gas emissions are invisible, challenging to estimate, and the accounting for these projects is typically not open to public scrutiny, buyers must rely on the credibility of the brokers and project operators. The GAO found that “the information provided to consumers by retailers offered limited assurance of credibility.” In other words, buyers beware.

Aside from any schemes and scams run by individual offset brokers and project operators, there is the overlay of the radical environmental agenda on the offset industry. GM’s offset broker, the Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF), is run by a former employee of the radical Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). BEF’s offsets are “certified” by an organization called Green-e, the board of directors of which includes members of NRDC and the radical Union of Concerned Scientists — as well as BEF’s senior vice president. So, not only are BEF and Green-e not independent of one another at the management level, they are threaded together ideologically by ties to radical environmentalism, a movement whose members will say and do almost anything to advance their social and political agenda. And GM is going to rely on assurances from BEF and Green-e about offsetting invisible greenhouse gas emissions.