United carbon offset disappointment

I’m a big believer in carbon offsets (not so much the cap and trade game, but in the simple internalize-your-externality-sort). I talk about it in my Green Culture talk. IMHO, we all have an ethical obligation to offset our carbon footprint — now. My wife and I have been doing so for a couple years. We’re a couple months late buying credits for last year.

One reason we’re late (other than the obvious) is the insane complexity in calculating it well. I travel way too much. That’s the biggest chunk to cover. But to calculate it accurately requires churning through a pile of flights. I could estimate, no doubt. But I want something more accurate.

So I was really happy to see on the United page an announcement of a “Carbon Offset Program.” What I expected it to be was a simple way to at least know what the total carbon footprint from your flights for some period was (after all, they have all the data), and ideally, a simple way to buy offsets.

No such luck. United has simple linked to one of the million places where you can calculate a per flight carbon cost. It allows you to input total miles flown, but its Mileage Plus page doesn’t give you total miles flown, it gives you the total added to your account (included bonuses, etc.)

Looking forward to version 2.0.

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14 Responses to United carbon offset disappointment

  1. Dopplr has a nice carbon calculator built-in. You have to enter all your trips, but I think it’s generally an exciting system if you don’t mind the Little Brother surveillance.

  2. lessig says:

    GREAT point. I do enter all mine in. Perfect solution.

  3. Padraic says:

    Why aren’t you a supporter of cap & trade? Isn’t a mandatory scheme going to more succesful than voluntary measures?

  4. lessig says:

    I favor a mandatory scheme — internalize your externality. I am suspicious of cap & trade. It seems like a complicated partial version of that, created by the same genius quants who gave us the mess on wall street, that is designed to generate large fees finance types. My sense is for a simpler system.

  5. Padraic Ryan says:

    Re: cap & trade – you shouldn’t use the financial crisis as an excuse to write off all of economics. A cap & trade system worked very well at reducing sulfur dioxide pollution in the US, finance types and all. You’re right that a carbon tax is definitely simpler, but there are upsides to cap & trade as well (such as the fact that the market will drive the price up, whereas a tax won’t increase unless Congress wants it to).

    Re: your green culture talk, I think you are misappropriating the Gore clip: isn’t he saying that your money would be better spent on political candidates and organizations that push for mandatory internalizing of externalities (changing the laws) instead of on carbon offsets (changing the lightbulbs)? My problem with carbon offsets and other voluntary measures is that given the finite amount of money, energy and attention we have to push for the environment, I feel like the opportunity cost of these measures is too high compared to policy-oriented actions, the citizen role that Gore referred. For example, Earth Hour would be much more productive if it were a global rally for carbon taxes; instead we de-politicize it and entertain the idea that voluntarily turning off lights will stop climate change.

    I’m a big fan of your work on IP and corruption, but I’m skeptical of these initial ventures into the environmental arena…

  6. mark says:

    “I am suspicious of cap & trade. It seems like a complicated partial version of that, created by the same genius quants who gave us the mess on wall street, that is designed to generate large fees finance types. My sense is for a simpler system.”

    That just shows you do not fully understand the cap and trade model….or the global financial crisis.

  7. Cathy says:

    When you book a route on United it tells you how many miles it will accrue, pre-bonus, for each leg. (I use it to calculate how many I’ll get towards my premier status.) It’s a tiny link they move around from time to time, but look for it near where the seat selection option is. You should see this on a screen before you purchase the ticket, and possibly also after.

  8. When I got to United’s site it has two columns, one for true miles flown (sort of) and one for elite bonus. So cut and paste into your spreadsheet and it should be fine. However, it does show 500 for the short haul flights, but I bet those are mostly L.A. so you can fill in the real mileage to L.A. on those, it should not take long.

  9. Yaacov Iland says:

    I’d check into the effectiveness of carbon offsets, particularly tree plantations, before spending money on them:

  10. Jardinero1 says:

    The only way to reduce your carbon footprint, is to reduce your carbon footprint, period. Paying someone else to do something they are doing, already, does not reduce your carbon footprint one bit.

    If you don’t believe that and still insist on paying someone else to consume less, then please consider paying me. My wife and I telecommute. We rarely travel. I ride my bike to the grocery store. We cook from whole ingredients and never eat processed or prepared foods. Both of our cars are high mpg and rarely used. They are both ten years old and we probably won’t replace them for another ten years. I just finished insulating my house and installed high efficiency windows and HVAC. I keep the thermostat high in the summer and low in the winter. All the light bulbs are fluorescent, except for the dimmer above the dining room table. I removed all the turf from my property and replaced it with vines and perennials. There are twenty three trees on the property sequestering CO2 on a continuous basis. No motorized equipment is required to maintain my garden which is now over ten thousand square feet of CO2 consuming plants.

    I would gladly accept the sum of fifteen thousand dollars from Prof Lessig or anyone else to offset his carbon heavy lifestyle. In return, I would submit to an audit of my lifestyle and I would issue him a certificate stating the amount of his carbon offset.

  11. Eric the Red says:

    Carbon credits: indulgences for the non-Catholic crowd. More modern, but just as dumb.

  12. pb says:

    “we all have an ethical obligation to offset our carbon footprint — now”

    There is nothing so dangerous as someone with an abundance of self-righteousness but very little knowledge.

    Carbon offsets ‘harm environment’
    Tuesday, 20 February 2007, 17:31 GMT

    Jutta Kill, of the Forests and the European Union Resource Network (FERN), was the most vehement opponent of the practice, arguing it probably did more harm than good.

    Carbon offsetting was “an unbelievably inefficient way of reducing emissions,” she argued, and its effects were impossible to verify.

    In addition, “More than half” of the money given to companies selling carbon offsets went on research and administration costs, “benefiting not the climate but the burgeoning consultancy industry”.

    “We believe it is worse than nothing because it creates the illusion, or the impression, in the public that action is being taken, while we are not really addressing the task at hand, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” Ms Kill told MPs.

    Illusions are powerful around here, it seems. Professor – stop listening to your “intuitions” and do some basic research!

  13. It’s nice to see feedback on the United program. I’ve posted your feedback on my carbon offsets news blog.

    Currently many companies are reticent to putting something in their purchase path as an upsell, just as they are reticent to putting anything in their purchase path. The cost for large companies to make any updates to their e-commerce sites is significant, another factor in keeping the type of program you’d like from being available. Additionally, there is a reluctance to share the data required for accurate emissions measurement due to perceived potential risks, possibly related to future regulatory concerns.

    The technology is certainly available. When the type of program you imagine IS put in place, the results have been very good. For example ShopGreen Merchant Reports 90% of customers ‘go green’

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