A market for counteracting pollution

Rush hour traffic fills the 101 freeway on March 22, 2006 in Los Angeles.

TESS VIGELAND: Ah, the Fourth of July. Gas up the car, throw in some chips and dip, a few burgers for the grill, the kids, the dog and head for the beach, or the lake, or a friend's backyard. But have you ever wondered how much that little excursion costs? Not in dollars and cents, but in pollution. Every time you get in the car you're spewing a teeny bit of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The US has no formal duty to reduce greenhouse gases, but that doesn't stop some citizens from taking it upon themselves. Here's Sam Eaton from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk.


SAM EATON: In the pie chart of greenhouse gas emissions, the slice designated "livestock operations" makes up about 7 percent. That's right, nearly a tenth of the stuff that's heating up the planet comes from cow poop. It's seen as a big problem, but in a stinkier, stickier version of the old lemons to lemonade maxim, Washington state dairy farmer Darryl Vander Haak sees opportunity.
DARRYL VANDER HAAK:"We're capturing it and making use of it, so it's not wasted. What goes in has to come back out either as milk or manure. So, just another way to utilize the other end."

Vander Haak recently invested more than a million dollars in a system that turns cow manure into electricity by separating the gas before it enters the atmosphere and then burning it.

VANDER HAAK: "It's hooked to a big generator, basically putting out 250-300 kilowatts per hour on the average."

The technology has been around awhile. The numbers just haven't added up for most farms. Until now. Vander Haak's hauling in about $1,000 a month by selling his gas reductions — or "offsets"— on the Chicago Climate Exchange. That's a voluntary trading house for greenhouse gases.

JIM JENSON:"What we're doing is commodifying clean air."

Jim Jenson is with Environmental Credit Corp. He says by putting a price on pollutants you allow the market to do all the heavy lifting.

JENSON: "Given the right signal, the market will find the way to achieve a reduction in emissions."

The theory is that the bigger the market, the bigger the reductions. That's why Jenson's in the business of pooling small savings from the likes of Vander Haak's dairy and selling them in bulk to big-time polluters, with the aim of making big-time profits.

JENSON: "Environmental Credit Corp. is set to become a major supplier of greenhouse gas reduction credits to world financial markets."

Presidio School of Management graduate student Jason Smith takes the model one step further. He founded a nonprofit that allows everyday consumers to enter the climate market.

JASON SMITH:"We think of it as democratizing the system, if you will."

The idea is to buy up blocks of greenhouse gas credits on the exchange, chop them into bite-size pieces and sell them to environmentally-conscious commuters. He calls it "Drive Neutral," but for Smith cars are only the beginning.

SMITH: "Essentially, right now we'd love to help neutralize people's entire lifestyle of emissions."

That's an exciting prospect for Boulder, Colo., resident David Adamson. He takes me for a drive in his car knowing the emissions coming out his tailpipe are canceled out somewhere else. He says he's become somewhat compulsive about the whole thing, making sure his business, his plane tickets, pretty much his whole life doesn't contribute to global warming.

DAVID ADAMSON: "I mean, I'm talking about what you would pay on lattes or, you know we're talking about a few hundred dollars a year."

But where guilt may motivate latte drinkers, dairyman Daryl Vander Haak is holding out for something a little more substantial. Every ton of carbon dioxide he keeps out of the atmosphere currently fetches about $2 in the US. That same amount trades for more than $30 in Europe, where carbon reductions are soon to be mandatory.

I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.

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