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Maria Surma Manka, a top expert in US environmental policy and green business answers your questions. If you have a niggling question or gap you need to be filled in on, feel free to drop us an email and Maria will answer it next week!

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“Dear Maria, I’ve been hearing the term “carbon neutral” very often in big companies’ marketing marketing material – I just wanted to understand it a bit better. First off, what is carbon neutrality and is there such a thing? Can companies use it as a badge for being green, while aggressively pursuing market share? It does seem somewhat paradoxical. – Mary”

Hi Mary,

“Carbon neutral” means that a company (or any entity) is not emitting any carbon dioxide pollution (CO2), which is a major contributor to global warming.

Companies that claim to be carbon neutral are often buying carbon offsets. This means that they are investing in some sort of project – like a wind farm or planting trees – that replaces the need for more dirty energy from fossil fuel sources. Thus, they are offsetting the carbon they have to emit by investing in something that is making the world cleaner. Neutralizing emissions this way is called “carbon offsetting.”

A carbon offset is a unit – typically sold by the ton – that can be purchased by a company or an individual to offset the emissions from everyday operations (like transportation emissions) to specific activities (like flying overseas). Companies like Yahoo!, News Corp, and Marks & Spencer have announced plans to become carbon neutral in the near future.

The debate surrounding carbon offsets is another post altogether, but you should know that there is controversy as to whether offsetting carbon emissions is truly stopping more pollution or simply an easy way for companies to pay off their “sins” and get some good PR out of it.

Although the term seems to be popping up everywhere, it’s a complicated concept and so I think it’s too soon to say whether consumers or investors gravitate towards a company specifically because they claim to be carbon neutral (versus a more common value like “green”).

If a company is touting its carbon neutrality, I’d recommend a closer examination. Are they first and foremost investing in energy efficiency measures? Can they and are they using cleaner burning fuels, less water, efficient lighting, local foods, renewable energy, and recycled materials? I do think that carbon offsets can be worthwhile, but only after a company first gets its emissions as low as possible.

Maria also has an excellent blog called Maria Energia. Environmental Graffiti highly recommends it.

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