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The Cost of Carbon Neutrality

Companies and institutions pay different prices for carbon credits in the push for net-zero carbon emissions.

By Climate, News, SAIC

“I’d love to install a windmill in Grant Park,” says Tom Buechele, vice president of campus operations, but building renewable energy infrastructure near the School of the Art Institute’s downtown campus is not in the cards.

SAIC is among the handful of carbon neutral universities in the United States. The school achieves carbon neutral status primarily through the purchase of carbon credits. A carbon credit is a voucher that represents one ton of carbon dioxide emissions (CDE) removed from the atmosphere. Buying carbon credits allows companies to reduce their net CDE.

Purchasing carbon offsets amounts to buying into projects that sequester carbon or invest in renewable energy. A nonexhaustive list of the projects that turn into carbon credits includes reforestation, waste management, water renewal, and alternative cookstoves. Buying into these projects through a project management company lets institutions offset their CDE and claim carbon neutral status.

Companies do not pay the same amount per carbon credit. The cost of reducing one ton of CDE through a project translates into the price of a carbon credit. In the best case, project managers determine the price of a carbon credit by scientifically measuring the quantity of reduced CDE and considering the cost of implementing and supporting the project. In the worst case, bad actors in this young market exploit loopholes by double-counting carbon credits, fabricating carbon sequestration data, or exploiting the labor of people implementing the projects.

Agencies have sprung up in the past couple decades to monitor and certify carbon sequestration projects. Up-to-date certification by a reputable agency lends legitimacy to a project. Certified projects should be as effective at sequestering CDE regardless of the price of the credit.

SAIC purchases credits from Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF), mostly in reforestation and regenerative agriculture projects. “Not letting cow waste into the environment,” as Buechele put it. BEF’s projects are all certified by bodies such as American Carbon Registry, Verified Carbon Standard, and Gold Standard.

SAIC tends to invest in domestic and Midwestern projects; however, many carbon sequestration projects are in the Global South. Sarah Leugers from Gold Stan dard, an international certification agency for carbon credit projects, says: “Gold Standard’s focus is equally on climate mitigation and sustainable development. The developing world contributed the least to causing the climate crisis yet are the ones suffering from it most acutely.”

Buechele oversees the retrofit of SAIC buildings to consume less energy. These interventions ensure that whether the human acts or not, the lights will turn off and the heat will decrease at night. The pipe dream is to electrify the heating. This is an impossibility, given limitations on the grid’s current capacity. In any case, electricity on the grid is produced from burning fossil fuels.

Carbon sequestration projects link environmental and social justice, often on a global scale. Critics of the carbon market argue that carbon credits allow the wealthy, who are the biggest carbon emitters, to buy cheap, guilt-soothing credits from overseas, instead of incentivizing behavior change. Meanwhile, citizens of the Global South are tasked with implementing change.

I asked Buechele how SAIC incentivizes behavior change among its community. “We have a lot of behavioral problems when it comes to how we treat the environment.” He continued, “The school has a terrible waste problem.” Students will make work without thinking about the material impact and think: ‘When I’m done with it, I’ll throw it away.’ The amount of waste at the end of the semester is incredible.”

Lora Lode teaches at the K lab, SAIC’s sustainability sandbox developed in the sculpture department. She says, “Many students come already with knowledge of the climate crisis and shortcomings of capitalist consumer culture that doesn’t lend itself to consciousness of our use of stuff.” Some dedicated students in her professional practice class developed a code-system to label materials from most-to-least sustainable.

“It’s important to note that buying carbon credits does not reduce a company’s greenhouse gas footprint,” says Elizabeth Pang from South Pole, a project management company. “But it is critical in addressing global emissions.”

Originally printed alongside infographic by Lela Johnson in the May 2022 Issue.

Michaela Chan (MFAW 2023) is cartwheeling. She’s the News/SAIC editor.

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