Carbon Calculations in the Garden


Okay, so let’s all Eat Local! But just as consumers here and in
Europe are gearing up to restrict their buying to local sources, New
Zealanders are asserting that their lamb is produced so much more
efficiently than European lamb, its carbon footprint is smaller even
after shipping.  Ditto the cut-flower growers in Africa, who claim their flowers have a smaller carbon footprint than
the ones grown in Europe’s energy-hog hothouses, even after shipping.  Indeed, NY Times nature writer Richard
Conniff opines that in the overall carbon footprint of a product,
transporation is often a trivial factor and that while air-freighting
is greenhouse-gas-wasteful, travel by sea isn’t bad at all.  Thus it’s
still better to buy a Prius from Japan than a Cadillac from
Detroit.  That one I would have guessed.

Oh, and the discussion can get ugly.  According to Conniff: "Beneath the surface, the urge to buy local is often
just a disguised version of the urge to punish someone foreign." 

Fortunately, some big-picture thinkers are looking for answers.
Notably, the largest retailer in the UK is working
on a "carbon label" to disclose the actual global warming caused by
product.  I can just see the grievance process now, clogged with makers
of high-number products protesting that the scoring system got it all
wrong.  It’s worth doing, though, so I say "Good luck!"

Also worth doing would be taking a
big-picture look at environmental consequences of garden plants and
related products.  And what would that look like?  I suggest somehow
combining a plant’s contribution to air quality, its provision for
wildlife, and its ability to thrive without external inputs (the new
buzzword "sustainability" I’m totally on board with).
Oh, and prevention of erosion.  And clover fixes nitrogen and should
get credit for that.  Oh, man, this is gonna get complicated.  And
that’s the point, I suppose.

Now let’s look at another
carbon-related can of worms – offsets.  That’s a hot new arrangement
where we pay someone else to cancel out the greenhouse gas emissions
from all the driving and flying that we do, not to mention just heating
and cooling our homes.  The money we pay is used to fund projects that
(in theory) reduce the warming effects, like investment in wind energy
and planting trees.  The market for offsets grew 80 percent last year
and it’s now a $55 million industry spread over dozens of companies.
Here are a few of them.

  • There’s TerraPass, which the Academy Award Show producers paid to offset the lollapalooza they put on every year.  I read that their reliance on renewable energy certificates is controversial but  what the heck are they? 
  • Native Energy in Vermont lists among its "partners" Ben & Jerry’s, and the Dave Mathews Band, which gives it some cred in my book. 
    And it’s Native American majority-owned, just to add demographic representation to the mix of factors we’re trying to assess.
  • CarbonFund was
    started by evangelicals and corporations like Dell and Lancome, and
    what do we make of that?  I read that it sells offsets at about half
    what Native Energy charges, but is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Carbon offsets got a lot of attention in the media when it was
reported the electric bill for Al Gore’s Tennessee mansion averages
$1,359 a month.  Right-wing pundits jumped all over Gore like
left-wingers screaming "Hypocrite!" when holier-than-thou politicians
get caught IM’ing congressional pages and hiring call girls.  Gore’s
defense is that he buys enough offsets to have a neutral carbon
footprint, despite the mansion, heated pool and frequent travel.  And
while Gore’s critics were of the predictable Fox News variety, I
confess to having doubts myself about offsets because they look like a
nifty way for rich folks to get off easy, once again. (Like buying your
way out of serving in the American Civil War for just $300.)

So I was relieved to learn it isn’t just global warming deniers who
are skeptical.  Others are asking: do they even do any good?  According
to this article
in the Washington Post, we may be buying good feelings only –
absolution from "climate
guilt" – because some improvements are only
"estimated, hoped-for or nil."  Some critics say offsets are a
"tempting alternative to a radical lifestyle makeover" and the Sierra
Club recommends against them "unless you have remade your life to be

According to MSNBC, carbon offsets have the
potential to do good and they "force people to evaluate how much carbon they
actually are responsible for, hopefully spurring people to first make
reductions and then buy offsets. It’s also seen as a practical way to
fund renewable energy projects ranging from wind power to solar energy."  Sounds good.

I got to thinking about carbon and gardening
recently when I attended a conference of botanical gardens and heard
the director of the Minnesota Botanic Garden say they’re buying offsets
for all the conferences they send staff to.  And sure enough, peruse
the websites of these offset-sellers and there’s the promo: "Offset
your conference."  But I wondered: isn’t there a lot of carbon
sequestration going on at large public gardens anyway and shouldn’t
that count for something?

  • And come to think of it, why not calculate the carbon offset of all the plants in my own garden? 
  • Nurseries could add little CO2 calculators to their websites and
    tell customers how many trees and shrubs they need to buy to offset
    their overseas vacation or their hottub.  And even perennials, annuals,
    and turfgrass help, so they should count, too.
  • And those public gardens could use carbon sequestration in their fund-raising campaigns.

At the very least, I propose that lists of "Ways You Can Help"
include, right along with reducing your driving, bringing your own bag
and breaking the bottled water habit, this bullet point:

  • Grow more plants.

Because while my liberal arts education fails me when it comes to judging the competing offset projects – methane, biogas or wind – buying and growing plants I totally get.


  1. Richard Conniff has got some weird ideas.
    I buy organic from a local grower because it is a lot fresher than anything I can buy in the stores and I know the circumstances under which it is grown. The produce travels about 150km because that is the nearest piece of good agricultural land in this mountainous region. Deliveries, summer (the farmer’s market)and winter (box shares), are once a week. I get to eat seasonal produce some of which I don’t see in supermarkets at all. Our local supermarkets tend to buy fruit and veggies from the States instead of locally which is odd as we are just north of a major fruit growing area.
    Am I buying organic and local to punish some else? The question is who am I punishing – the big American corporations or the very poorly paid native employees? At least by buying locally I know that I am supporting a local family in a decent lifestyle, much as I would wish that overseas growers got paid a decent wage. Where I can, sugar for instance, I buy FairTrade.
    As for carbon offsets, they are just another way of making ‘stock exchange’ money while allowing people to continue in the same old way gobbling up resources.

  2. I agree with Kathy; even though the details are messy, it’s great that people are, at LAST, even thinking about this stuff. Better progress than has been seen since the environmentalists of the 60’s. Let’s not discourage them!

    ps I liked the latest idea from Congress, eliminate the mortgage deduction for houses over 3000 sq ft to encourage people to live in a more green manner. Who needs all those McMansions??!!

  3. Another Kathy chiming in here – I’ve always found the “carbon credits” practice troubling. It just smacks of the “wealthy buying indulgences to get out of heaven” practice of the Middle Ages. Pay a fee and you are guilt free! Sorry, it just doesn’t wash with me and many others who are strivingto actually reduce our carbon footprint and not just pay our way out of it.
    After spending the weekend at local farmer’s markets and talking to several growers — I am being persuaded more and more that “eat local” is even more imprtant than “eat organic.” Some of the market growers sell garden plants and potted herbs, all guaranteed they grew them locally. Knowing that the USDA and state laws require nurseries to track all plants that come in from out of state closely so they can follow up on any signs of potential disease, insect infestatin, etc., I’d like that labeling to be added to the plants we buy as well. They all know it and it is easily accessed – they just don’t currently pass that info on to the consumer.

  4. First, the New Zealand study is highly suspect, not only becuase it was conducted by New Zealanders who have an interest in promoting New Zealand lamb, but becuase it compared grass-fed New Zealand lamb to grain-fed British lamb. Most of the carbon difference was in the feed. They never compared grass-fed to grass-fed.

    It is cheaper to ship by sea than by air. But also consider all of the handling features inovlved in long shipment, such as the energy consumed maintaining temperaturs (or even freezers), the on- and off-loading of goods, first at port of departure, then at point of entry, trucking to get to and from the ports, etc.

    Finally, buying local products helps support the local economy. It doesn’t have to be a dig at foreigners. But if you want farmers producing delicious produce in your area, you have to buy the local produce. And yes, it may not necessarily be organic, because not all local farmers are buying into the USDA certification system.

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