Editor’s note: If nothing else, please read Drew Shula’s original article for this issue of SKINS—the first feature and further discussed here—and buy the best quality carbon credits you can find to offset your carbon footprint!
Traveling again? Yeah, the return to normal has been accelerating. Both to record carbon emissions as well as taking to the skies. According to the World Economic Forum, global airline capacity is approaching 2019 levels, especially in North America. My personal carbon footprint is embarrassing. Do you know your carbon footprint? If you haven’t used one of the online footprint calculators, I highly recommend it. It’s likely to provide some surprises and perhaps deeper insight into the wicked problem of sustainability. I always include an exercise that involves the calculation of their personal carbon footprint to my students. After all, we are the problem, our patterns of consumption, including how we “consume” buildings. (Want to reduce your carbon footprint? Check this out.)
Anyway, you will find that it’s not all about transportation, commuting, or air travel, but that’s a big chunk of it. So, I’ve long been sensitive about my excessive frequent flier miles. I haven’t been to an airport for 3 years now, but as the pandemic lifts and a return to the skies seem inevitable, I’ve started thinking about the potential debt to my carbon account and how to deal with it; how to fly without guilt. I started paying attention to the surging conversation around carbon offsets; take a flight, pay a few bucks to negate the carbon emissions impact by funding an offset strategy, like planting a tree or two. Sounds good! Too good to be true? I’ve grown deeply suspicious of what seems like easy fixes to complex problems like those posed by the climate crisis. I started peeling back layers of the onion. The news was somewhat mixed, but not particularly encouraging, and it seems to have worsened over recent months (see the feature article Carbon offsets: The case against...).
We have an interest in this at the Institute. Every other year we invite our international network to fly into LA for our World Congress, a premiere international event in the facades universe and one celebrated by our membership. But isn’t this fundamentally at conflict with our stated mission, a mission of stepping buildings and urban habitat toward ambitious goals of resilience and sustainability? I had been advocating consideration of hosting a virtual event pre-pandemic as an alternative (and getting absolutely nowhere). The recent years of pandemic have demonstrated that few are interested in virtual events, and those that are don’t feel they should have to pay for them. And sponsors don’t see the same value as with in-person events. (That crackling sound you hear is two of our revenue streams drying up.) So, the answer is carbon offsets, right? We could build them into the registration price, thereby assuring that we are not further polluting the atmosphere with carbon emissions. So, I initiated a conversation at the Institute—quite a robust conversation as it turned out—around the topic of carbon offsetting practices.
One person I pulled into the conversation was my pal, Drew Shula, fearless leader of Verdical Group, a sustainability consultancy and organizer of the annual Net Zero Conference in Los Angeles. Drew has helped many companies improve their carbon footprint, and retroactively brought Verdical to net-zero as an organization for its history to date. And how did he manage that, you ask? Carbon offsets, of course! Drew’s team did the work of calculating Verdical’s carbon emissions since its inception. After first focusing on limiting carbon emissions to the greatest extent possible, Verdical purchased carbon credits to more than offset that total. Voila! Net-zero and on to net-negative carbon emissions. This is more-or-less the same strategy behind the many net-zero pledges from major corporations—Apple, Microsoft, Delta, even the major fossil fuel corporations—we’ve heard about over recent years. They typically rely heavily on the purchase of carbon credits, the currency for the practice of offsetting carbon emissions. But the practice is not limited to corporations. It’s also increasingly being applied to new building projects desirous of claiming net-zero status, as often featured in building industry media.
The lack of transparency in these claims of net-zero opens the door to potential abuse in the form of another prevalent practice that industry has become quite good at, greenwashing. Building projects like this hotel in Denver, touted as the first carbon-positive (I’m confused, shouldn’t that be carbon-negative? Yet another example of the way we abuse language) hotel in the country [USA] by developer Urban Villages, are prominently featured and passed off as milestone achievements in sustainable building, without the ability of the reader to evaluate the claim.
According to Urban Villages, the hotel will achieve a "carbon-positive" design through "substantial ecological effort offsite, including an initial commitment to planting trees that represent over 5,000 acres of forest". (Drieth 2022)
Now, Drew is a notably cheerful and optimistic fellow, a real glass-is-way-full guy, among the things I love about him. I, on the other hand, am deeply skeptical and a borderline cynic, a real glass-is-nearly-empty kind of guy. I can vaguely remember an abundance of youthful optimism, but the decades have beat it out of me. So, I like hanging around with Drew and surrounding myself with optimists, they make me feel better (plus, these bloody optimists need a counterpoint!). I leaned on him to write an article on carbon offsetting for this issue of SKINS and he kindly obliged, providing a piece that had me fist-pumping in my chair. Honestly, it doesn’t do a whole lot in convincing me of the viability of carbon offsetting practices, but it is a beautifully written, veritable manifesto in the conversion from fossil fuels to renewable energy. It articulates a vision shared by many of us, expressed with the kind of passion, confidence, and optimism that Drew brings to any conversation. And then, of course, the Biden administration approves the Willow drilling project in the Arctic, with enough of a carbon load into the atmosphere to be the tipping point into a nightmare future for humanity. The fossil fuel industry appears intent and, unfortunately, capable of extracting and burning every last drop of oil this planet has to offer. I swear, I just don’t know how the optimists do it.
Despite my inherent skeptical bias, we attempt to bring you a balanced look at carbon offsetting practices. The feature following Drew’s article presents the case for carbon offsets, providing a brief explanation of the concept and a compelling argument for the practice as a moral imperative. This is followed by the case against, represented by a recent article in the Guardian charging that the value of 90% of rainforest carbon offsets provided by the world’s largest carbon credit certifier are worthless, offsets that have been used by Disney, Shell, Gucci, and other major corporations to support their carbon emission reduction claims. Many similar articles questioning the value of carbon offsets can be found, calling into question offsetting practices as they currently exist. Following this is another perspective from the New York Times reporting on fellow skeptics voicing their concerns about the US carbon offset plan at COP 27. And finally, as additional context for this brief dip into the topic, a summary article on the important and newly released 2023 IPCC report on climate change. It includes some excellent infographics. Scroll down to the infographic on the top 10 findings.
To me, the following quote from UNEP, which both supports and uses carbon offsetting practices to achieve net-zero, rather politely sums up the situation:
“Buying carbon credits in exchange for a clean conscience while you carry on flying, buying diesel cars and powering your homes with fossil fuels is being challenged by people concerned about climate change.”
It may surprise you that, after doing the research for this issue of SKINS, I too, while reserving my undiminished skepticism, support carbon offsetting. I recognize it as one of the all too few tools for those organizations, institutions, and governments attempting to mitigate the impacts of climate change. The concept works, it’s the execution that’s in question. The carbon emission reduction pledges at the national, corporate, and personal levels hold the promise of providing at least some of the trillions of dollars needed (very soon) to implement carbon drawdown strategies critically needed to keep warming to manageable levels. In this respect, the frequent negative news reports on carbon offsetting and greenwashing becomes yet another barrier, discouraging use of the practice.
My recommendation with respect to air travel? Consciously limit your trips to only those absolutely necessary, occasions where virtual meetings and digital communication technologies just won’t make it. Then, when air travel is necessary, do your research and secure the highest quality carbon credits available (not necessarily those offered by the airlines) to offset the carbon footprint of your entire trip.
What can help with the whole carbon credit industry and offsetting practices? We need more transparency from the carbon credit agencies (and more oversight), as well as with national and corporate carbon reduction plans. Such plans must evidence a primary strategy of actual reduction of carbon emissions from operations to the greatest extent possible, and as a secondary strategy offsetting only that which cannot be currently reduced or eliminated. Sadly, this will no longer be enough to ward off the escalating impacts of climate change. We need new drawdown technologies and strategies capable of removing and sequestering enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere.
A few other fun features complete this month’s newsletter, things worth taking a look at in this world of stuff clamoring for your attention. Control it ( your attention), put it where it will do the most good, and join us at the Facade Tectonics Institute!
Good offset hunting!
Dreith, Ben 2022. “Studio Gang breaks ground on Populus building designed to be US' "first carbon-positive" hotel.” Dezeen. April
Great thanks from all of us at
The SKINS Team:
Mic Patterson, Facade Tectonics Institute
Val Block, Facade Tectonics Institute
Betsy Covington, Technoform
Alberto Alarcon, Kuraray
Social Media & Events Calendar Editor
If you would like to join the SKINS team, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org. There is much to do!
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