Warning: Reading This Article May Contribute to Global Warming. But These Young Entrepreneurs Want to Do Something About It.
Simply by breathing while you’re sitting there at your computer, you’re releasing about 40 grams of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every hour. But because you’re at that computer—which is using electricity, which was likely produced by burning some fossil fuel—you’re indirectly responsible for emitting another 60 grams of CO2 per hour.
Or are you? The numbers aren’t in dispute—but the question of who should take responsibility is. And two student-entrepreneurs from Harvard and Yale argue that it isn’t readers but website publishers—the people who produce all that content for others to consume over the Internet—who should be cognizant of their sites’ overall “carbon footprints” and should do something to counter the greenhouse effects of the emitted CO2.
Alex Wissner-Gross, a physics doctoral student at Harvard, and Tim Sullivan, a history of art doctoral student at Yale, have created a small piece of software—a “widget,” in Web 2.0 parlance—that publishers can plug into the code of their websites. The widget, called CO2Stats, measures the amount of time visitors spend on each page, adds it up, calculates the amount of carbon dioxide released as a result, and displays the running total. The idea is to make publishers (and readers) more aware that the Internet—as a giant collection of servers and routers and phone lines and fiber-optic cables and networking devices and home PCs that all run on electricity—has a real environmental impact.
“Information communications technology in the industrialized world accounts for about 2 percent of overall CO2 emissions,” says Wissner-Gross. “One could say ‘It’s only 2 percent of the pie, so let’s attack transportation or some other carbon source,’ but that’s not being visionary enough. Information technologies are some of the easiest-to-attack portions of the pie.”
Big Internet companies like Google are attacking by investing in cleaner energy sources to power their massive data centers (the search giant announced today that it plans to spend tens of millions of dollars in 2008 on R&D on solar, wind, geothermal, and other forms of renewable energy). Wissner-Gross and Sullivan are attacking by buying carbon offsets equivalent to the total footprint of all CO2Stats users. Carbon offsets are, in essence, pledges that someone else will take action to prevent the release of a certain amount of greenhouse gas. In the case of CO2Stats, Sullivan and Wissner-Gross buy offsets from Sustainable Travel International, which uses the money to invest in a varied portfolio of renewable-energy and energy-efficiency projects, from wind farms in Washington state to solar collectors in Costa Rica and an effort in Cambodia to develop more efficient wood-fueled cook stoves. (The graphic at left is an actual CO2Stats widget showing how much CO2 has been offset as a result of Xconomy readers visiting this page.)
Carbon offsets are a tangled matter. There’s acrimonious debate within the environmental community about every virtually every aspect of the subject, from how to properly measure an individual’s or an organization’s carbon footprint to what kinds of projects lead to legitimate, measurable reductions in CO2 emissions—and even whether buying an offset (technically, a “renewable energy credit”) for a kilogram of carbon dioxide is really equivalent to preventing the emission of one kilogram of the gas.
But Wissner-Gross and Sullivan aren’t fixating on the philosophical fine points. “The whole notion of having portfolios of carbon offsets is still a very young, very immature field, and I think we’re very open to growing with the field as international standards for what constitutes a ‘good’ carbon offset become available,” says Wissner-Gross. “Right now we’re trying to work within the system. We’re not in the business of starting our own carbon offset firm.”
And for now, Wisner-Gross and Sullivan are paying for the offsets out-of-pocket, using money they say they’ve saved as frugal graduate students. (The pair run a small software consulting company called Maxtility that has also created Isonme, a site that helps people get instant advice about things they photograph in their environments, and BooksOnPoster, a technology for printing entire books legibly on a single sheet of paper. They recent sold BooksOnPoster to SurfMyAds.com.) “We think we can probably survive a few more months” paying for the offsets out-of-pocket, says Wissner-Gross, “but it would be nice to get some sponsors on board.”
That need will get a little more urgent as CO2Stats’ popularity builds. Wissner-Gross says that through word-of-mouth publicity, the number of publishers and bloggers installing the widget is growing at about 7 percent per day, and that there will likely be a million users within two months. Wissner-Gross says he and Sullivan haven’t added up the total CO2 emissions tracked by their widget across all its users, but they expect to post a running total on their website starting sometime in the next few weeks. So far, they’ve offset 1.075 pounds, or about half a kilogram, of CO2 emissions from their own site, according to the widget at www.CO2stats.com. (Offsets from Sustainable Travel International cost $15.25 per metric ton, so offsetting half a kilogram of CO2 would cost only about 7/10 of one cent.)
Sullivan and Wissner-Gross don’t anticipate asking widget users themselves to pitch in for the offsets. “The Internet has reduced the friction in so many other aspects of our lives today, and we felt that in order to create a sustainable system for offsetting emissions from information communications technology we needed to keep the friction low and throw in some of our own capital,” says Wissner-Gross. “So I think [publishers] have taken enough of a positive step by putting the widget on their website in the first place. But in the longer run, it may stimulate people to take responsibility for larger, more ‘frictionful’ steps.”
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