KAI RYSSDAL: Michael Dell, the once and future CEO of the computer company he founded in his college dorm room, turns 42 years old today. He announced last month he’s coming back to the executive suite. Dell lost its crown as the world’s top PC maker while he was retired. He said he wants to get back to number one again — but be environmentally aware while he does it. The company’s going to ask consumers to donate two bucks every time they buy a notebook, six when they buy a desktop, toward planting trees to offset the energy PCs consume. That gave commentator Richard Conniff some pause.
RICHARD CONNIFF: There’s something kind of silly about the idea of Michael Dell selling power-hog computers and thinking he’s going to get some feel-good global warming P.R. by planting a few seedlings.
And it’s not just Dell, either. The Rolling Stones used the same ploy in 2003 when they announced that their entire tour would be “carbon neutral.” The plan was to plant one tree for every 60 concertgoers, to offset the greenhouse gas emissions produced by getting them, their equipment and the fans to and from the stadium.
Golly, those must have been the hardest working trees in rock ‘n’ roll. It makes you wonder how many trees it would take to offset the Mercedes-Benz SUV the Rolling Stones were promoting as part of their 2006 tour.
And — this just in — the U.S. Energy Information Administration has the answer. It says one large sugar maple tree can pull 450 pounds of carbon dioxide per year from the atmosphere. And all it would take to offset the emissions from every car in America is preserving 31 such trees per car.
Unfortunately, another U.S. government report says sugar maples are vanishing because of global warming.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for planting trees. But these schemes are ripe for voodoo accounting. I mean, how do you calculate how much a tree needs to grow to offset the energy you burned by leaving your computer on last night? And what if your tree goes poof in a forest fire? You start to understand why even environmentalists call these schemes “a morning-after pill for fossil fuel excess.”
If you want to fix global warming, the first step is to cut fossil-fuel use. And when you can’t cut any more, then pay somebody else to cut their fossil fuel use. For instance, replace the inefficient old furnace in a local school building. Or reward workers for using public transit instead of the parking lot.
The only way those trees Michael Dell is planting will still be around for our grandchildren to enjoy is if we deal with the real problem now.
RYSSDAL: Richard Conniff’s latest book is called “The Ape in the Corner Office.”
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