Is “carbon-neutral” anything more than a buzzword?

While it is easy to understand the general idea behind labeling a city, product, or process “carbon-neutral,” it is not clear what the precise definition is and how big the system is that is being referred to. While there may be an equal amount of carbon inputs and outputs, or none at all, in most cases, other parts of the system, such as distribution, actually produce quite a bit of carbon, but are not considered. A recent claim by Dell has stretched the definition of being carbon-neutral even further. The fact is that Dell buys renewable energy directly from utilities to satisfy one-fifth of its energy needs, along with enough renewable energy credits to offset the other 80%. With this in mind, there are a few problems with claiming that all Dell facilities are carbon-neutral.


First and foremost, since carbon is still emitted into the atmosphere, buying renewable energy credits does not grant carbon-neutral status, even ignoring the fact that the manufacturing of all renewable energies still require fossil-fuel inputs. IFf every company were to operate in this fashion, buying energy credits to make up for emissions, there would always be carbon emissions until 100% of energy came from already established renewable systems that are maintained by carbon-neutral means. While Dell should be commended for taking a lead in its sector on this issue, using this label is incredibly misleading and assumes that the job is done. The ultimate goal should be one large system that requires no fossil fuel inputs.

In addition, Dell is focusing on energy supplied to its facilities, and ignoring several other factors that assuredly produce carbon. The procurement process of raw materials and parts to produce computers surely consumes fossil fuels, as does the transportation of the finished product to the customer. Let us not also forget the employees, who must commute everyday. These are areas that Dell should look to address in attempts to become less of a carbon producer.

To take it a step further, if Dell generates a profit and passes that on to its employees, they are going to consume fossil fuels and products that require fossil fuels, or save their earnings and give their bank the ability to loan ten times that amount for fossil-fuel consuming investments.

What this shows is that the only way for any process to be carbon-neutral, it either has to be part of an entirely closed loop, or the world needs to be carbon-neutral for the most part. In the meantime, Dell’s investments are helping us get to that point, but we shouldn’t be too quick to claim carbon-neutrality when there is clearly much work to be done.


One Response

  1. I’d even add that Dell is partially culpable for the woefully inadequate electronics recycling that’s happening. Frequently, unwanted electronics turned in for recycling are simply transported overseas where there are fewer laws and then dismantled in the open air. This process leads to both increased carbon emissions and exposing the environment to harmful and toxic materials such as heavy metals.

    Recycling is preferable to dumping toxic substances in landfills, but it must be done properly in order to actually protect the environment.

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