Carbon management and SETAC


Who would have believed on 22 April 1970, the 1st Earth Day and thereafter the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement, that by the beginning of the 21st century the scope of environmental challenges facing our planet would also include carbon management. Carbon, as in carbon dioxide—the ubiquitous gas we generate during respiration and that plants use for photosynthesis.

No less than the Science Mission Directorate at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)—the US space agency better known for looking beyond this planet—identifies carbon management as a national priority. According to NASA, carbon management is one of the key resource management and policy issues of the 21st century. The atmospheric concentration of CO2 increased by about 25% during the 20th century and is continuing to increase in part due to the burning of fossil fuels and changes in land cover and land use. NASA believes that increases in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 and other greenhouse gases will likely produce significant changes in global climate and accompanying changes in energy and water cycles. These changes will have profound impacts on the Earth's ecosystems and society.

There is little doubt our society will soon adopt a global low-carb(on) diet. Most scientific and public opinion have come to the shared conclusions that there is an unreasonable accumulation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, especially CO2, in our atmosphere and that human activity is largely to blame. The carbon management that is envisioned by national and international environmental agencies and organizations is expected to integrate all aspects of manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, and power generation around technologies that produce energy and materials with the lowest GHG emissions. In the future, carbon neutrality will factor into sustainable practices and reliance on renewable resources. It is not so far-fetched to envision that the transition to a low-carbon diet in an economically viable fashion will require society to impose a carbon tax on consumer products and services. At this early stage of the carbon diet, emissions-trading markets that attach cost (per unit output) to GHG emissions are emerging in some countries.

If Nobel laureates Mr. Albert Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are to be believed, then globally implemented, nationally coordinated carbon management programs may be the only means to avoid catastrophic climate change. Such programs would likely be the precursors of a carbon-neutral global economy.

SETAC and its members take climate change and a low-carbon diet very seriously. Organizers of SETAC annual meetings in Asia/Pacific, Europe, Latin America, and North America are looking closely at companies and organizations that facilitate purchasing of carbon offsets for their annual conferences as part of a new commitment to host carbon-neutral meetings. Pioneered at the 2006 SETAC North America meeting, the success of the carbon-offsets purchase program among delegates has encouraged SETAC to move towards expansion of the program to include all SETAC activities worldwide.

Despite the simplicity and popularity of purchasing carbon offsets and becoming carbon neutral, organizers of the 2006 SETAC North America meeting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, reminded us of 2 important caveats. These cautions are worth repeating here. First and foremost, carbon offsets should not be anyone's first course of action when attempting to reduce their carbon footprint. Individuals and organizations should look for ways to reduce their carbon footprint through direct emissions reduction or through purchase of emissions-free electricity or electricity from other low-carbon energy sources. Carbon offsets should only be considered once efforts to reduce the use of energy and carbon intensity of that energy have been taken.

Second, we are cautioned, based on the experience from organizers of the Milwaukee meeting, that not all carbon offset providers or projects meet the same standard of quality. At this early stage of a new market, it may not be so surprising that the burgeoning carbon offset industry would benefit from increased monitoring and independent certification of carbon offset companies to ensure they are doing what they say they are doing and charging a fair price for their efforts.

In the future, SETAC will strive to continue to offer meeting delegates the option to purchase carbon offsets for travel to its annual conferences and workshops. And because the value of meeting in person and learning from peers and colleagues cannot be replaced, supporting a carbon offset program is especially appropriate for offsetting GHG emissions that are somewhat unavoidable, for example, the emissions associated with travel to SETAC events.