Baby steps at Yahoo!

I very much want to like Yahoo!’s project to make its operations carbon-neutral by the end of the year. It’s an extremely ambitious plan for a very large and still growing company with so many recent acquisitions. I particularly like that they’ve decided to include their employees’ commutes in their calculations, taking some responsibility for the consequences if it puts offices in distant, low-density, poorly-served-by-transit suburbs. I shudder to think of the pollution consequences of the mirrored offices of Markham and Kanata and Burnaby.

It’s the kind of corporate leadership the world needs more of, and Yahoo! is being strikingly open about its philosophical approach and its plans (meaning the latter, as yet quite vague, can be measured against the former), so I don’t want to dump on it. It’s ahead of most any other company its size in the United States.

But…

The company estimates its current emission responsibility as the equivalent of 25,000 cars being driven for a year; with the going guesstimate of a single car’s annual output being 10,000 to 12,000 pounds a year, that’s 125,000-plus tonnes of CO2. So we’re talking about a hell of a lot of carbon Yahoo! has to either eliminate or find some way to put back into the planet.

It appears that Yahoo!’s plan will rely heavily on buying carbon offsets, so much so that they say they’ve identified some offset projects they want to invest in and are inviting proposals for the rest. That’s still got to be a good chunk of money for it to be worth someone’s while to submit a proposal and Yahoo!’s people to evaluate them.

Yahoo! has the resources to buy into a couple of big, meaningful projects (the company mentions “a wind farm in India or a small-scale run of the river hydroelectric project in Brazil”) instead of the sort of borderline useless thing you and I might do in hopes of offsetting the carbon-spew of a cross-country flight, such as paying into a tree-planting program that may or may not result in any actual trees being planted.

Nevertheless, carbon-offset projects, even comparatively good ones, are fundamentally cheats. They’re an improvement we can make in what I hope is a first phase of global emissions reductions, not a permanent solution. There aren’t enough renewable-energy projects in the world, not enough fertile land on which to plant fast-growing carbon-fixing plants, not enough scrubbers to put on Third World smokestacks, to make up for the First World’s carbon dependency. The kinds of solutions we need to take up, led by successful cutting-edge companies, have to reach more deeply and make carbon-offsets unnecessary. Ditch the traditional office-building HQ in Sunnyvale, for instance, unless it meets LEED platinum standards — as TreeHugger reported last summer, not even 20 commercial buildings across America recently did. Commit to buying only office supplies that are fully recyclable. That’s hard and, for now at least, expensive. Yahoo! is one of the few companies that could likely afford it.

Yahoo!’s plan talks about the right things for a Phase One–type plan. I look forward to Phase Two.

(Hat-tip: Joel Makower.) 

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