Roads to ’08 leaving footprint: Dems tout carbon offsets
Former Sen. John Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign has paid nearly $22,000 to offset its globalwarming emissions this year, including more than $5,000 a month from April through June, making him the candidate with the largest acknowledged output of greenhouse gases.
Meanwhile, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign spent $2,367 to offset its emissions for April alone, while Sen. Christopher J. Dodd paid $650 for his presidential campaign’s emissions from April through June.
Together, they are the three campaign pioneers in the new world of carbon neutrality: the idea of “offsetting” their greenhouse-gas emissions by paying a third-party company to plant trees, build clean-energy projects or take other steps that will lead to less carbon dioxide being emitted.
Presidential campaigns, it turns out, are a dirty business, environmentally speaking — and for the first time, the campaigns’ Federal Election Commission reports are providing a glimpse of just how dirty they are when it comes to greenhouse-gas emissions.
In short, Mr. Edwards’ acknowledged “carbon footprint” is at least double the size of Mrs. Clinton’s, and the comparison prompts the question of whether he is dirtier, or whether she is less diligent in figuring out what her campaign is emitting.
At $12 a ton — the rate she pays to Native Energy, her chosen offsets provider — Mrs. Clinton’s payment amounts to almost 200 metric tons of carbon-dioxide emissions for April alone.
Mr. Edwards, who also uses Native Energy, emitted nearly 450 tons a month in April, May and June, judging by his own $16,146 payment his campaign says he made on July 11. He had made an earlier $5,850 payment on March 30.
By comparison, the average American’s emissions for an entire year runs about 20 metric tons, while the average European’s emissions comes to about 10 tons.
All three Democrats have touted their efforts on the campaign trail.
Mr. Edwards went first, announcing in March that at the time “we’re the only campaign in either party to make the carbon-neutral pledge.” Mrs. Clinton followed the next month, timing her pledge to coincide with Earth Day.
But it’s tougher to evaluate how well they are living up to their pledges. Campaign-finance reports give only a snapshot of the campaigns’ efforts, and the picture is clouded by the traditional secrecy that surrounds campaigns.
While Mr. Dodd’s campaign pro- vided a near-complete breakdown of his carbon emissions for one month, neither Mrs. Clinton nor Mr. Edwards would give details of what they cover or what they emit.
Those who track the issue say disclosure is the key to judging who is living up to the pledge.
“When someone is running for office, I think voters appreciate transparency, and I think voters appreciate actions more than words,” said Julia Bovey, a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Action Fund. “I would hope that any candidate who claims a commitment to cutting back on global-warming pollution is also open to talking about what they’re doing.”
The NRDC Action Fund, the political arm of the nonprofit environmental group, issued a challenge in February to all of the candidates, asking them to run carbon-neutral campaigns.
The fund promised to help any candidate who accepted the challenge by offering expertise on revamping their energy use, but so far none has taken the fund up on its offer.
“Any of the big environmental nonprofits would be more than happy to serve an advisory role on this issue of how to create less pollution,” Ms. Bovey said. “That offer still stands, and that would also help give some transparency to this process.”
Without the campaigns providing figures, it’s difficult to measure their efforts. Some campaigns are far larger than others, some travel more than others, and travel makes up the largest chunk of emissions.
One independent yardstick could be President Bush’s travels on Air Force One, which a Web site, heliumreport.com, estimated could be offset for $200,000 a year. Mr. Bush takes fewer trips than candidates, but flies a much bigger aircraft.
For another measure, a businesstravel services organization has estimated large businesses should expect offsets for air travel to run between 1 percent and 2 percent of a ticket’s price. With travel costs running half a million dollars or more per quarter, that means the big campaigns should expect to spend as much as $50,000 a year to offset flights alone.
Mr. Dodd’s campaign released the most details, giving a near-complete picture of actual emissions for May: 1.85 metric tons for hotels and car rentals; 6.24 tons for commercial airplane flights; 0.4 metric tons for two hybrid cars; and 3.78 metric tons for office space. The campaign said it paid for, but didn’t have available, the exact amount of emissions for computer use.
Mr. Dodd’s spokesman, Hari Sevugan, said their actual bill for May came to $67.50, but they paid $200 to cover just-in-case costs.
“If people are doing stuff for the campaign from home, for example, this would help cover that,” he said.
The campaign uses Carbon Fund, which charged $5 per metric ton to offset emissions, or $7 less than charged by Native Energy, the company chosen by Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Edwards.
Mr. Dodd also spent $67,642 on charter flights with Air Charter Team Inc., which includes carbon offsets in its prices.
Steve Davison, vice president of marketing for Air Charter Team, said it calculates emissions by gallons of fuel used per flight, and plugs that into a formula based on the type of aircraft used to come up with an emissions total for each flight.
No Republican candidate has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality — not even Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who has sponsored almost every major piece of global-warming legislation over the past few years.
Brooke Buchanan, a campaign spokeswoman, said they have asked for a company to study the campaign’s carbon footprint and come up with offsets, but she was unable to provide the name of the company, when the study was contracted or when it will be done.
“We started it earlier this year, and we’re just waiting to hear back from them soon,” she said. “They’re right in the middle of it, so we look forward to hearing the outcomes of this study.”
Mr. McCain’s spending records don’t record a payment to any of the major offsets companies.
His spokeswoman said the campaign has bought energy-efficient computers and lights and has asked the landlord at the building that houses its headquarters to turn off the air conditioning when the office isn’t in use.
Colleen Murray, Mr. Edwards’ spokeswoman, said the Edwards campaign also controls and conserves energy from lights, heating and computers, and “have thousands of local volunteers working together on community-service activities, including weatherizing homes and distributing energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs across the country.”
“Our campaign takes offsetting our carbon footprint very seriously. That is why we have taken many voluntary steps to improve the environment, including purchasing carbon offsets for the travel of Senator and Elizabeth Edwards and all staff members that travel with them, and for energy used in our headquarters and all field offices,” she said.
Bill Connelly, a spokesman for Native Energy, said that when they are contacted, they take a look at how clients can reduce what they use and help them track the rest to calculate offsets.
“We do an inventory of emissions. We take a look at all of their carbondioxide impact,” he said. “The primary source of emissions is typically travel, usually air travel, and then we look at all of the other ways they use energy.”
He said he could not discuss particular clients’ energy use or offsets without their permission, which he said he did not have.
Sen. Barack Obama, the candidate running closest to Mrs. Clinton in the Democratic presidential-nomination race, does not pay for offsets, but he does use Air Charter Team, the same company Mr. Dodd uses, which offsets emissions through Carbon Fund. Mr. Obama’s campaign listed $702,802 paid to Air Charter in the last period.
His campaign did not respond to calls for comment on his carbon footprint.
Some critics said the responsibility goes deeper than just paying a company to offset energy usage.
“The question is not how much they’ve paid, nor indeed the amount of carbon dioxide they’ve emitted, but what they’re actually doing about it — what the offsets mean,” said Iain Murray, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “You have to ask — if you believe that offsets are actually doing some good, then what is it those offsets are paying for?”