Carbon neutral: including offsetting fees in registration

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Carbon neutral: including offsetting fees in registration

Postby Allyson Beall King » Sun Nov 29, 2009 12:42 pm

At the 2009 conference in Albuquerque the Environmental SIG offered participants the option to offset their conference related emissions. Since the conference we have seen a fair bit of debate as to why participation in the voluntary program was low and multiple requests for the SIG to propose to the policy council that the offset fee be part of the registration fee. A little over a week ago I sent in a proposal to the Policy Council for an “opt out” carbon offset as part of the registration fee. The PC meets in January which means, that in the short term we do not have the time to include the offset in the fees for the 2010 Conference. We will have the voluntary option available via the web link on the SDS registration site as we did for the 2009 conference. However, in the long term we can plan for discussion at the winter and summer PC meetings and for the 2011 conference. We hope that this thread generates comments from the Society at large.

From my synopsis of the discussion to date there are several issues at hand with opinions on all sides.
1) The potential for this to create extra work for the home office. An opt-out would require more bookkeeping etc.
2) Adding carbon offsets to the registration fee would more fully internalize the impacts of the conference.
3) This could be seen as a statement that would have impacts on the Society’s reputation.
4) Does carbon off setting work?

We will be compiling all of your responses, which will be made available for the January PC meeting.

Best, Allyson
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Re: Carbon neutral: including offsetting fees in registration

Postby Aldo Zagonel » Sun Nov 29, 2009 2:44 pm

Thank you, Allyson!

In your responses to this thread, it would be helpful if you were to address your views on the following premises:

1) The System Dynamics Society should (not) strive to hold carbon neutral conferences

2) If #1 is answered in the affirmative, carbon offsetting should be handled in the following manner:

Option A) Offsetting should be optional, with participants opting "in" voluntarily and directly with the provider (e.g., CarbonFund) --as was the case for the Albuquerque Conference

Option B) Offsetting should be optional, but already included in the registration fee, unless registrants choose to opt "out." The SD Society would collect the contributions and make a transfer payment to the provider (e.g., CarbonFund)

Option C) Offsetting should be mandatory and automatically included in the registration fee.

Obs: Options B and C would require the Society to handle the moneys raise and contributed, adding to the work done by the Society Office as part of the conference registration process.

Allyson's proposal, which I endorse, advances this initiative from Option A to Option B, for the purpose of increasing the participation rate, from less than 10 percent in Albuquerque to hopefully a majority (>50%).

I include here the full text of the proposal/justification:

Carbon Neutral System Dynamics Conferences
Allyson Beall
Environmental SIG
November 23, 2009

The System Dynamics Society partnered with Carbonfund.org as a means of offsetting the carbon emissions associated with the 27th International
Conference System Dynamics Conference held in Albuquerque, New Mexico USA in July 2009. SDS took the first step in making this event carbon neutral by offsetting 15 tons of the conference emissions and encouraged attendees to offset their individual carbon impact as well. Although the conference had a climate centric theme, participants only offset a small portion of our carbon footprint, which when combined with the original 15 tons offset by the society came to a 10% total offset. Many participants noted that going online to offset their carbon was inconvenient and requested that the offset be a part of the registration fee.

International conferences have an especially high carbon footprint primarily due to people flying long distances. Other sources of emissions include hotel energy and food, and local transportation. Other than having a virtual conference one manner of reducing our carbon footprint is to purchase carbon offsets. Carbonfund.org helped us estimate our 2009 conference emissions at 900.9 metric tons based on statistics from the 25th International System Dynamics Conference held in Boston, July 2007. The estimate includes the number of attendees and their places or origin, number of hotel nights, estimated local transportation, estimated square foot of conference space and food provided by the conference. SDS has opted to average the total projected impact of our conference among the total number of projected attendees so as to not place a higher burden on those traveling from overseas. The price of offset for each participant at the 2009 conference was US$15.27.

Due to low voluntary participation, the significant interest in having the offset part of the registration fee, and the overall feedback that becoming carbon neutral was a good idea; the Environmental SIG proposes that the Society add a carbon neutral fee to the registration fee with an “opt out” option for those who do not want to participate. The current price of ~US$15.27 per participant should be enough to cover the conferences not held in the US unless those conferences start seeing the higher participation numbers that the US conferences experience or the price of carbon offsets changes significantly.

With the understanding that there would be added work by the home office to manage the offset we recommend the price of $20 to cover that additional expense with any excess to go to offsetting the carbon footprint of the home office.
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Re: Carbon neutral: including offsetting fees in registration

Postby Richard Dudley » Thu Dec 03, 2009 9:04 am

I support options B or C.

How is this proposal moved toward implementation, or has that already been done?
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Re: Carbon neutral: including offsetting fees in registration

Postby Bill Braun » Thu Dec 03, 2009 4:40 pm

Before moving ahead with any option, would it be useful to understand why so few people supported the initiative?

I am not an experienced tax return analyst, so I may be off base (and happy to have that pointed out to me). By my read of Carbonfund.org's 2008 audited financial statement (http://www.carbonfund.org/site/uploads/ ... -Audit.pdf) only 35% of its 2008 revenue went to program/project expenses. Compensation alone accounted for 23% of revenue. Between 2007 and 2008 28% of revenue ($2.5M) has not been distributed to fulfill mission and purpose. If my read is correct, I would be discouraged from participating in such a program. I would want my contributions put to better use.

Bill Braun
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Re: Carbon neutral: including offsetting fees in registration

Postby Thomas Fiddaman » Mon Dec 07, 2009 4:48 pm

This doesn't look great. Unfortunately it's hard to find comprehensive ratings of offset providers (links here, http://www.co2offsetresearch.org/consum ... tings.html ). It's possible that there are other explanations for the apparent low program expenditure ratio though. You'd expect high overhead in a startup, as all providers are. There are also long approval pipelines for projects, so you'd expect to see a lot of cash retained. This does at least leave me inclined to shop carefully though.
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Re: Carbon neutral: including offsetting fees in registration

Postby Aldo Zagonel » Thu Dec 10, 2009 3:09 pm

Answering Richard Dudley’s question:

How is this proposal moved toward implementation, or has that already been done?

This proposal has NOT been formalized into a motion. At this point, Allyson and I are simply encouraging conversation and discussion, in this Forum (for the Society members at large), at the Environmental SIG bulletin board (for those keenly interested in environmental issues), and within the Policy Council listserv (to access if there is support to implement it).

As Allyson stated, the views presented in this Forum will be aggregated and made available to the Winter PC meeting, and will help contribute to the decision to move forward (or not).

Bill Braun points to an important aspect involving offsets.

Are they verifiable?

That is, how do we know that the money donated is being invested in the ways that it was supposed to? What percentage of the contribution is reaching its purpose, as opposed to being consumed by overhead, for example?

I was not personally involved in the choice to set up CarbonFund.com as our provider for this service at the Albuquerque Conference. We asked that members of the Environmental SIG help us sort through these issues, make a choice and set it up for us (as a separate opt "in" feature). To the extent my knowledge:

"Carbonfund.org is a carbon offset organization that is non-profit(1), durable and third party verified(2), used by reputable academic institutions(3), NGO’s(4), and is endorsed by the Environmental Defense Fund(5)." (info provided by Allyson Beall)

Points 1-5 are substantiated at the bottom of this message.

Although, as you can see, deliberate thought and consideration was applied to this choice, it may need to be revisited, to the extent that problems with are identified and substantiated, and we come to learn about better alternatives. Perhaps another provider should be chosen to work with for the Seoul Conference. I don't know. I leave it to others, better informed than I, to make this evaluation.

In addition to verifiability, at least two other criteria are of utmost importance when evaluating offset options:

Are the they durable?

Better investments are those which last the longest. Planting trees is a good thing in general, provided the current pace of deforestation. However, a tree will only sequester carbon while it is alive. Once it is chopped down or dies, it releases its carbon back in the environment. If the investment is going toward planting trees which are then being harvested for wood, it is not as effective as if it is for establishing a preserve, for example.

Are the offsets non compensatory?

One example of a loophole here is for a large land owner to dedicate a portion of his land as a preserve, receiving credits for it, but then cutting down everything around it for raising cattle. All of the offsetting did, in this case, was to generate money and good will for the rancher to raise his cattle. Conceivably, he was going to leave an area untouched anyway. Similarly, it does not alleviate the problem to finance wind and solar projects that were bound to take place anyway. Ideally, we should invest in things that would not otherwise happen.

I used examples which involve planting trees and preventing deforestation, but Carbonfund.com, as well as other organizations offer offsets to be applied to energy efficiency (e.g., better insulation), and non-carbon energy sources (notwithstanding the issues mentioned above regarding, for example, wind and solar projects.

I would like to conclude by encouraging all of us to educate ourselves on the subject of offsets, as they may be an effective mitigation option to slow down the pace of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, but they are not without their shortcomings and problems. The Wiki is a good place to start: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_offset. (As a separate message, I include an abridged summary.)

While carbon offsets may treat the symptoms but not the true cause of the climate change problems we are experiencing (for those of us who believe there is a causal link between accumulation of green-house gasses in the atmosphere, and increasing global temperatures), it is still something that is within our reach to do in the context of our travel to the SD annual conferences.

This is not simply an individual issue and choice, however, to the extent that the Society promotes these conferences. Therefore we feel it is not only desirable, but actually recommended (or perhaps required), that the Society takes a proactive standing in affording a proper mechanism to address the problem that it is contributing to.

What we are proposing is primarily:

a) That the SD Society declare as its policy, to strive toward holding carbon neutral conferences
b) That in order to achieve this goal, it will begin including a carbon-offset fee (optional) in the cost of registration
c) That, to preserve individual choice, and to respect differing points of view, anyone who does not wish to participate may opt “out” during the registration process

As of today, there have been 265 viewings of this topic on the Forum, but only three postings from people other than the proponents of this initiative. Please consider stating your views on this subject, asking questions, and otherwise taking part of this conversation.

Thank you,

Aldo Zagonel

References:

(1) http://www.carbonfund.org/site/pages/fa ... statements
(2) http://www.carbonfund.org/site/pages/ou ... _Selection
(3) http://www.carbonfund.org/site/pages/ou ... rs_schools
(4) http://www.carbonfund.org/site/pages/ou ... nonprofits
(5) http://innovation.edf.org/page.cfm?tagID=23994
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Re: Carbon neutral: including offsetting fees in registration

Postby Aldo Zagonel » Thu Dec 10, 2009 3:20 pm

The following text was abridged from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_offset:

CARBON OFFSETS are a financial instrument aimed at a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. There are two markets for carbon offsets. In the larger, compliance market, companies, governments, or other entities buy carbon offsets in order to comply with caps on the total amount of carbon dioxide they are allowed to emit. In 2006, about $5.5 billion of carbon offsets were purchased in the compliance market, representing about 1.6 billion metric tons of CO2e reductions. In the much smaller, voluntary market, individuals, companies, or governments purchase carbon offsets to mitigate their own GHG emissions from transportation, electricity use, and other sources. For example, an individual might purchase carbon offsets to compensate for the GHG emissions caused by personal air travel. In 2008, about $705 million of carbon offsets were purchased in the voluntary market, representing about 123.4 million metric tons of CO2e reductions.

Offsets are typically achieved through financial support of projects that reduce the emission of GHG. The most common project type is renewable energy, such as wind farms, biomass energy, or hydroelectric dams. Others include energy efficiency projects, the destruction of industrial pollutants or agricultural byproducts, destruction of landfill methane, and forestry projects. Some of the most popular carbon offset projects from a corporate perspective are energy efficiency and renewable energy, such as wind turbines.

Carbon offsetting has gained some appeal and momentum mainly among consumers in western countries who have become aware and concerned about the potentially negative environmental effects of energy-intensive lifestyles and economies. Offsets may be cheaper or more convenient alternatives to reducing one's own fossil-fuel consumption. However, some critics object to carbon offsets, and question the benefits of certain types of offsets.

Some disagree with the principle of carbon offsets, likening them to papal indulgences, a way for the guilty to pay for absolution rather than changing their behavior. Some environmentalists have questioned the effectiveness of tree-planting projects for carbon offset purposes. Some offset providers have been criticized on the grounds that carbon reduction claims are exaggerated or misleading. Because offsets provide a revenue stream for the reduction of some types of pollutants, they can in some cases provide incentives to pollute more, so that polluting entities can later get credit for reducing emissions from an artificially high baseline. Although many carbon offset projects tout their environmental co-benefits, some are accused of having negative secondary effects, such as negative environmental impact of hydrological dams. Offset projects may also have negative social impacts, for example when local residents are evicted to enable a National Park to be marketed as a carbon offset.
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Re: Carbon neutral: including offsetting fees in registration

Postby Richard Dudley » Thu Dec 17, 2009 8:35 am

In Aldo's note he mentions that....

....Planting trees is a good thing in general, provided the current pace of deforestation. However, a tree will only sequester carbon while it is alive. Once it is chopped down or dies, it releases its carbon back in the environment. If the investment is going toward planting trees which are then being harvested for wood, it is not as effective as if it is for establishing a preserve, for example.


Just a comment: If we consider forests rather than trees then the issue is a bit clearer. Forests consist of an inflow of new trees and an exit of dying trees..... but there is always a stock of carbon in the forest dependent on the age/size of the trees. Although a forest preserve does store more carbon than a forest managed for harvest, the forest managed for harvest does store quite a bit (perhaps up to 65% of the total possible without harvest) and if we consider C stored in forest products.... long-lived products such as furniture and houses... then more is possible. While I don't believe that managed forests come under current climate agreements these issues are important in the C balance of forests, and are being considered.

OK not really relevant to the discussion of the carbon neutral conference. :-)
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Re: Carbon neutral: including offsetting fees in registration

Postby Richard Dudley » Thu Dec 17, 2009 9:06 am

Just another comment about the sale of carbon offsets.

We have an image of our our carbon offset payments being used to pay people to plant trees directly. But that is not the way the programs work. It is more akin to a financial market with financial "products" being marketed and those products are somewhat removed from an actual physical product. If that is correct, then it is not surprising that a reasonable proportion of the fund is used for salaries and related costs. In fact I don't see that percentage (was it 35%) being that high compared to other realms.... such as overheads charged by consulting firms or universities (which don't even include some salaries).

In fact one of the critical issues with REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) proposals with in the climate talks is the very high transaction costs related to figuring out payment schemes, verification, and monitoring.

Just a thought.
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Re: Carbon neutral: including offsetting fees in registration

Postby Thomas Fiddaman » Wed Jan 13, 2010 6:06 pm

We have an image of our our carbon offset payments being used to pay people to plant trees directly. But that is not the way the programs work. It is more akin to a financial market with financial "products" being marketed and those products are somewhat removed from an actual physical product


Going a little further, all products work that way. We don't complain about the manufacturer's % overhead or profit margin when we buy a car. What matters is whether the car works and is good value compared to other cars. Same for offsets - all we should care about price per REAL ton that a provider reduces. High overhead might lead one to suspect that a given price point can't really reflect real emissions reductions, but it's not a problem per se.
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