Caring About Carbon

At Jeanne Braha Troy’s wedding last summer, guests left without any lace-bedecked pictures of the bride and groom, fancy candles or daintily wrapped mints. They didn’t leave empty-handed, though: At one of the world’s first climate-neutral weddings, Troy and her husband, Seth, gave each guest a more stable climate and cleaner air.

Jeanne and Seth”s “cool” wedding didn’t harm the planet one bit!

Troy, a student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, first came across the idea in discussions with friends. She knew that most couples give out favors at weddings now, but felt that “they are always either edible or some piece of junk,” Troy says. “No one wants a picture frame with my name on it.” She also knew that just about every aspect of a wedding—from travel to invitations and a reception—spews harmful carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere.

Troy and her husband decided to offset the carbon emissions produced by their event by giving carbon credits for wedding favors. They calculated the average emissions for the wedding based on cross-country air travel and highway miles for each guest, as well as an estimate of the CO2 that would be produced by the wedding itself. Finally, they funded carbon-reducing projects to cancel out the harmful emissions of the event.All in all, the wedding emitted about 20.8 tons of CO2, so the couple purchased the equivalent from Native Energy, a Vermont-based company. Native Energy will use the funds (about $15 per ton) to support wind energy or farm methane projects that reduce global carbon emissions. Each guest received certificates with an explanation of the project. While some of the 110 guests weren’t quite sure what to make of it, Troy says, “All of my friends thought it was cool.”

From the micro to the macro, the world’s most powerful nations gathered in June of 2005 at the first climate-neutral G8 summit, held in Scotland. The group is sometimes criticized for flying people around the world to discuss climate change, so the G8 organizers offset the summit’s emissions by investing in sustainable development projects around the globe. One major project involved installation of solar water heaters and low-energy light bulbs in Cape Town, South Africa, which should offset an estimated 5,600 tons of carbon dioxide each year.

Many others are jumping into the fray, planning climate-neutral (also known as carbon-neutral) conferences, graduations, parties and sporting events. Celebrities and musicians are top supporters of the CarbonNeutral Company in England, a business “for good,” according to the company’s website. Artists as diverse as Coldplay, David Gray and Iron Maiden have calculated the emissions released through album production and tours, then offset them by contributing album proceeds to “Celebrity Forests.” CarbonNeutral planted 10,000 mango trees in India for Coldplay, neutralizing the emissions from the album A Rush of Blood to the Head.

CarbonNeutral also offers many other services, including personal carbon calculators that can help individuals determine the emissions for airplane flights, homes, cars or entire lives. Gifts are available for the climate-conscious on your Christmas list, and the company can also help certified CarbonNeutral weddings, parties and conferences.

The 2006 FIFA World Cup soccer final in Berlin is slated to become the world’s largest carbon-neutral sporting event under the ongoing Green Goal Initiative. Fans will fly across the world and cram into a stadium in Berlin to cheer on two lucky soccer teams in the final, but climate champions will be praising the event’s organizers, who are working to ensure that no net carbon emissions will result from the game.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Germany’s environmental minister are both committed to working with the World Cup Organizing Committee (OC) and studying the environmental effects of the games. The OC already has plans for many environmental initiatives, including stadiums with solar roofs, dry toilets, rainwater collection tanks and increased public transportation to the events. “The eyes of the world will be on Germany during the World Cup. We naturally want to set an example in terms of environmental protection,” OC president Franz Beckenbauer observed at the 2003 launch of the Green Goal Initiative.

The climate-neutral component may well be the group’s largest contribution, though. While organizers hope to eliminate much of the gas emissions through sustainable design and planning, experts estimate that the final event will produce approximately 100,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases, mostly through increased traffic. Organizers will attempt to “neutralize” these extra emissions through compensation programs around the globe by funding the Kyoto Protocol’s “Clean Development Mechanisms”—projects that seek to improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions in developing countries.

As part of this project, the OC will be sending Family Clean Energy Packages to regions of India that were dramatically affected by the tsunami. Probably few of Tamil Nadu’s coastal residents have ever seen a professional soccer game, but 700 families in the region will still benefit from the world’s most popular sport. The energy packages will include stoves that are “biogas digesters,” running on cow manure and reducing the need for wood or fossil fuels. The German Football Association is poised to invest 500,000 euros ($589,000) in this initiative before the games begin.

The World Cup Organizing Committee says that it hopes to “provide eco-friendly, safe and guaranteed energy supplies thus simultaneously protecting the local and global climate, and improving the villagers” quality of life.” The project will be carried out by the Indian nonprofit group Women for Sustainable Development, and will be combined with more typical compensation measures like tree-planting.

It may seem like a daunting task to calculate the emissions produced by traveling, printing programs, heating rooms, producing food, powering loudspeakers and completing the other myriad tasks involved in a wedding or any other major event.

While it’s hard to get the numbers exactly right, a good estimate is made easy with the aid of online carbon calculators. Numerous companies and nonprofit organizations (like Native Energy, CarbonNeutral, American Forests, Safe Climate and Climate Care) offer a wide array of personal calculators. Some do little more than estimate emissions from driving, while others consider the effects of everything from brushing your teeth to playing video games.

Whether you are interested in offsetting the environmental effects of one big event or an entire lifestyle, these organizations and businesses also offer an array of compensation options. You can plant trees in the rainforest or fund solar panels in Africa, retire industrial carbon credits or install energy-efficient fixtures in your home. The heat is on to neutralize your climate contributions, and these efforts will get us all one step closer to a cooler world.