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September 18, 2014

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Carbon offsetting for Clean Energy Summit? Uhhh, no

National Clean Energy Summit 6.0

Actor and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks during the National Clean Energy Summit 6.0 at the Mandalay Bay Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013. Launch slideshow »

The attendees at this year’s National Clean Energy summit took many a gas-guzzling plane, cab and SUV to make it to Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Resort, where they spent Tuesday comparing notes on the latest commercial technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Sound ironic? Perhaps. But for now, conference organizers suggest, it is just one of the opportunity costs of getting the fledgling clean energy business going.

In the past few years, sustainable energy conference directors from the United Nations to the American Meteorological Society have either mandated or offered attendees the opportunity to offset their event-related carbon emissions, by investing the estimated cost of their “carbon footprint” directly into a sustainable energy project.

But since the Nevada-based Clean Energy Project took over the financials of the National Clean Energy Summit in 2011, they have eschewed the idea of offering participants a formal, centralized way of purchasing carbon offsets, reasoning that the purpose of the conference is like an offset itself.

“We use our limited resources to do direct advocacy for policies that help create renewable energy,” CEP executive director Lydia Ball said.

Few of the conference organizers seemed aware of the carbon offsetting trend.

“This is the first I’m really hearing anything about it,” said Camille Yameen, spokeswoman for the conference, while a spokeswoman for Sen. Harry Reid, chief conference organizer, asked for more clarification about what the Sun meant by carbon offsetting.

Carbon offsetting relies on estimating the amount of environmentally harmful carbon emissions one produces, or is at least responsible for, in the context of performing various activities, such as driving a car, flying in an airplane, or simply turning the lights on in their abode.

There are numerous carbon calculators online: the government’s Environmental Protection Agency has a questionnaire to estimate household emissions, while more narrowly focused calculators estimate emissions for college students, certain types of businesses and even specific makes of automobiles.

Event planning is a popular area for carbon emissions estimates, as the fairly predictable combination of flights, hotel stays and in-town transportation offer a manageable way of measuring one’s carbon footprint — and the pressure to offset that can more often be put on a company than an individual employee’s checkbook.

For example, the event calculator at TerraPass.com estimates that a round-trip flight from Washington, D.C., to Las Vegas, plus two nights in a hotel, plus about 20 miles of in-city driving produces about 2,200 pounds of carbon dioxide. The site then estimates cost of offsetting that level of emissions is about $13-14.

But for the crowd in Las Vegas, coughing up even just a few extra dollars can be a tricky business.

While the conference attracted a few national consultants and developers, most conference attendees from outside of Nevada are government officials. When you add up the carbon footprints of the entourages for Reid, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, and a small battery of current and former governors and members of Congress, the total of offsets could be a significant cash windfall for some worthy renewable energy project.

But using taxpayer dollars to pay for offsets at a time when the country is still divided over the harmfulness of carbon emissions or the technologies that produce them — especially at a time when deficits are high and budgets are tight — is a politically risky proposition.

Even within the growing community of climate change activists, there is dispute as to whether carbon offsetting, on an individual or collective basis, is really a deceptively false panacea.

Critics charge that carbon offsets do little to actually reduce the overall output of greenhouse gases, because the emitters are able to write off their sustainable environmental responsibility with a paycheck. Carbon offsets have even been compared to the sale of indulgences by the Catholic church — the rationale being that no level of investment in renewable energy projects will matter if the big emitters are given carte blanche to keep belching carbon byproducts into the air.

Still, official public policy on carbon offsets is divided. California recently green-lighted plans to let companies pay up to 8 percent of their required greenhouse gas reductions through carbon offsetting, while the European Union imposed a ban carbon-producing businesses using UN Certified Emissions Reductions to count toward emissions restrictions.

For now, clean energy conference organizers in Nevada are steering clear of the controversy and erring on the side of frugality, hoping that the clean energy work they are promoting — such as solar panel fields and clean-fuel cars — justifies the dirtier means of coming to the conference to display them and encourage others to take on similar projects.

“As you know, UNLV and MGM, both co-sponsors (of the conference), are currently developing renewable energy projects,” Ball offered, referring to the solar and clean-fuel burning projects, in explaining why the National Renewable Energy conference didn’t get into the business of carbon offsetting.

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