Can Hillary Clinton Make Her 2016 Bid Carbon-Neutral?

The campaign promised to offset its carbon footprint. But it’s not an easy task, and details are few and far between.

AMES, IA - JULY 26: Democratic presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to guests gathered for a campaign event at Iowa State University on July 26, 2015 in Ames, Iowa. Although Clinton leads all other Democratic contenders, a recent poll had her trailing several of the Republican candidates in Iowa. 
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Ben Geman and Clare Foran
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Ben Geman and Clare Foran
July 29, 2015, 6:59 a.m.

Hil­lary Clin­ton wants to make sure her pres­id­en­tial cam­paign doesn’t hurt the plan­et.

The Clin­ton cam­paign an­nounced on Tues­day that the former sec­ret­ary of State’s White House bid will be car­bon neut­ral. “We’ll be off­set­ting the car­bon foot­print of this cam­paign, and that in­cludes travel,” said Jesse Fer­guson, a cam­paign aide.

The an­nounce­ment ar­rived just days after Clin­ton star­ted rolling out her green-en­ergy and cli­mate-change plat­form — and after Re­pub­lic­an op­pos­i­tion re­search firm Amer­ica Rising re­leased a video of Clin­ton board­ing a private jet hours after talk­ing up her en­vir­on­ment­al plat­form in Iowa on Monday.

Clin­ton’s car­bon-neut­ral pledge also stands as the latest ef­fort to prove the Demo­crat­ic con­tender’s green bona fides, as she faces fierce cri­ti­cism on the Left for re­fus­ing take a stand on con­ten­tious is­sues, in­clud­ing the Key­stone XL pipeline. A green cam­paign could also al­low Clin­ton to take more digs at Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates who ques­tion wheth­er glob­al warm­ing is hap­pen­ing at all.

But what will it take for Clin­ton to go green, how much will it cost, and will it make a dif­fer­ence?

So far, the cam­paign hasn’t provided de­tails, but off­sets can get ex­pens­ive. In 2007, Clin­ton’s pres­id­en­tial cam­paign pledged to neut­ral­ize its car­bon foot­print and paid out more than $80,000 to Ver­mont-based firm Nat­ive En­ergy over the course of 2007 and 2008, Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion fil­ings in­dic­ate.

(Nat­ive En­ergy also worked with John Ed­wards to make his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign car­bon neut­ral. Com­pany vice pres­id­ent Tom Stod­dard said that they have not yet been con­tac­ted by the Clin­ton cam­paign this time around.)

Travel, by plane and by car, would likely make up the largest seg­ment of total emis­sions that a car­bon-neut­ral cam­paign would need to off­set. After that, elec­tri­city to keep the lights on at cam­paign headquar­ters and field of­fices all the way on down to emis­sions gen­er­ated by cam­paign staff and vo­lun­teers as they com­mute and can­vas would need to be tal­lied and neut­ral­ized.

Of course, the best way to lim­it emis­sions is to curb the num­ber of fuel-guzz­ling plane and auto­mobile rides. But “you can’t vir­tu­ally shake hands or kiss ba­bies,” notes Jeff Swen­er­ton, com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or with Green-e, a San Fran­cisco non­profit that cer­ti­fies off­set pro­jects.

If a cam­paign takes steps to curb emis­sions, the next step would be to off­set the re­main­ing car­bon foot­print with some kind of cred­it. Com­mon off­set pro­jects in­clude ini­ti­at­ives to plant trees or stem de­for­est­a­tion, sup­port re­new­able-power pro­jects that help dis­place fossil fuels, and cap­ture meth­ane from land­fills, among oth­ers.

All that could add up. The go­ing rate for car­bon off­sets var­ies based on the com­pany, the amount of cred­its needed, and the type of off­set pur­chased. (For in­stance Ter­ra­Pass, a long­time pro­vider, charges busi­nesses $13.12 per met­ric ton of car­bon-di­ox­ide off­set.)

The plane that Clin­ton re­portedly flew from Iowa to New Hamp­shire earli­er this week burns 347 gal­lons of fuel per hour. A round-trip flight from New York City to Des Moines, Iowa, on that plane would burn roughly 38 met­ric tons of car­bon emis­sions and cost around $185 for bulk pur­chases of car­bon off­sets, ac­cord­ing to Nat­ive En­ergy’s Stod­dard.

Swen­er­ton said there are now well-es­tab­lished ways for or­gan­iz­a­tions to track the amount of pol­lu­tion they’re cre­at­ing. “Fig­ur­ing out your car­bon foot­print is a pretty ma­ture dis­cip­line right now,” he said. “There are a lot of ways to fig­ure out with some level of spe­cificity what your car­bon out­put is from fly­ing and driv­ing.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley, who are also seek­ing the Demo­crat­ic White House nom­in­a­tion, are both out­spoken on cli­mate change. Aides to their cam­paigns did not re­spond to in­quir­ies about wheth­er their op­er­a­tions are off­set­ting emis­sions, too.

Re­gard­less of the de­sire to off­set CO2 emis­sions, ex­perts cau­tion that pur­chasers of off­sets must be di­li­gent about en­sur­ing that they’re sup­port­ing real pro­jects that would not oth­er­wise be hap­pen­ing any­way. Buy­ing the ab­sence of emis­sions can be tricky, says Mi­chael Wara, an ex­pert on en­ergy and the en­vir­on­ment at Stan­ford Law School.

“It is a very com­plic­ated top­ic, par­tic­u­larly when you get in­to the vol­un­tary mar­kets, be­cause there is much less of a cop on the beat than in the reg­u­lated or com­pli­ance mar­kets,” he said, con­trast­ing vol­un­tary off­set pur­chases with off­sets ob­tained un­der reg­u­lat­ory pro­grams like the cap-and-trade sys­tems in Cali­for­nia and the European Uni­on.

But Yale’s Daniel Esty says the off­set mar­ket has be­come in­creas­ingly well struc­tured over the last dec­ade and that buy­ers can now be “quite con­fid­ent” that es­tab­lished play­ers such as Ter­ra­Pass will trans­late off­set pay­ments in­to ac­tu­al emis­sions-cut­ting pro­jects.

“These pro­grams have been in place now for more than a dec­ade, have been care­fully re­viewed, have been audited — at least the best of them — and as a res­ult provide a high de­gree of con­fid­ence that off­set dol­lars are be­ing ap­pro­pri­ately spent,” said Esty, who is dir­ect­or of the Yale Cen­ter for En­vir­on­ment­al Law and Policy.

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