What does it mean to be "green?" As everyone's favorite frog will tell you, "it's not easy being green." Especially when you're trying to make history doing it.
The Democratic National Convention Committee has stated that their goal "is to make this the greenest convention in history." They plan to do this by encouraging renewable energy be installed around the city, xeriscaping public areas such as around the Big Blue Bear (which, unfortunately, now separates the public from this great work of art), recycling efforts, healthy food alternatives, and offsetting carbon emissions. All great projects and lofty good intentions.
But you know what they say about good intentions...
One of the DNC's largest "selling" points on the green front is their use of carbon offsets to counteract the emissions from the thousands of guests coming to Colorado. A carbon offset (or credit) is, essentially, an environmental indulgence. People and groups purchase carbon offsets in order to continue to pollute, but pay for it to be "made up" someplace else.
Some carbon offsets are purchased in order to fund projects like wind farms and solar installations; but they're not actually removing any of the pollution produced. Other carbon offsets go to support pollutant reuse and destruction, which actually does remove the harmful gases and toxins from the air. One is about reduction, the other removal. So, which offset is better?
It's a question of long-term verses short-term. In the short-term we need to find ways to remove the pollutants from the air and either use them productively (such as with methane) or destroy them. While some of these processes do provide long-term solutions, especially for farms and industrial plants, they are also beneficial in the short-term. Renewable energy investment is, however, more of a long-term solution. We need to move from using fossil fuels and toxic energy that harms the environment as well as our selves. The way in which we can do this is to explore renewable and interruptible energy sources (such as wind). Unfortunately, in the process of researching and building these types of projects, we will be emitting more of those pollutants that the carbon credits are meant to balance out.
These different offsets also cost different amounts. It is cheaper to preserve a forest than it is to build and maintain a methane recycling facility - so the forest preservation offset would be cheaper. But would it do as much "good?" When someone purchases a carbon offset, they are purchasing the reduction of one metric ton of greenhouse gas such as CO2. So one carbon offset should be equal to another. One metric ton of CO2 is the same as the next. But it isn't. Certain offsets also provide "co-benefits" such as a reduction in pollution in the water or wildlife conservation. And, again, comes the question of how long will it take for the project to offset its own emissions?
Then there is the DNCC's announcement that it would be purchasing "discount" carbon offsets. What is a "discount" carbon offset? After discussing this with an expert on renewable energy and attempting to research online, I still have no answer. The sale of a carbon offset is not meant to be a profit-making deal. A carbon offset that is priced at $20 should be because all of that money is needed to keep the project running, so giving a discount would, logically, mean a smaller offset.
So is the DNC really offsetting the emissions produced as a result of the event, or are they just trying to appear as though they are? Or were they able to purchase discount offsets because one of the main projects doesn't work properly or produce the amount of energy it was supposed to? In the Face the State article, Wray County Superintendent Ron Howard stated "I'm also not going to tell you how much we got from the sale of the green tax for green energy. That's all there is to it" ("DNC Boondoggle"). This raises suspicions in my mind about the legitimacy of the DNCC's whole carbon offset project.
This isn't to negate or diminish the other environmental awareness aspects of the DNC such as the Green Frontier Fest, which is an event intended to promote the use of renewable resources and to educate the public about the practicality of such items. Residents and visitors alike have been taken aback by the sheer size of the wind turbine blade that dwarfs the dancing aliens outside of the Denver Center for Performing Arts. There are at least six other environmental fairs going on around Denver including on Wednesday at Coors Field and just across the pedestrian bridge in LoHi. In an inventive, and environmentally progressive move (literally), Coor's Brewing provided "waste" beer to fuel DNC vehicles. And, of course, there are the 1000 bikes for people to use to get around. Delegates may want to be careful if they choose that form of transportation in the city, however, as police have been told to watch out for people riding bikes, wearing helmets, and carrying maps as they may be "dangerous protesters."
Solar installations, already in the works before Denver became the location for the DNC, were expedited across the Denver area. The prime example is the massive, two megawatt photovoltaic solar array at Denver International Airport, which provides 3.5 million kilowatt hours of energy a year. DIA is not alone, either, as the Federal Center in Lakewood and several buildings in downtown have also started getting energy from their own solar installations.
These are great, sustainable projects that will benefit Denver over time. However, the DNC's attempt to "go green" has some failings even beyond the carbon offsets.
One of the items so heavily touted by the DNC was the presence of recycling bins along the 16th Street mall. But what about around the Pepsi Center and Convention Center, the dual cores of this event? Not only are there not recycling bins, there aren't even trash cans. In the case of the Pepsi Center, this was forcing people waiting to get into the compound to just throw their trash on the ground, as they couldn't bring food or drinks inside. The most likely explanation for the lack of trash or recycling bins within a wide perimeter of these venues is that they are potential security risks. But their absence sure doesn't jive with the DNC's green message. Maybe they could put some of their many law enforcement individuals on bin control, guarding the trash and recycling bins from any potential terrorist threat. Our refuse needs to stay safe, too, right? Security risk or not, large groups of hot, hungry adults produce waste, and that needs to be addressed in some way. The piles of litter may disguise the massive black fence surrounding the Pepsi Center compound, but I'd like the disguise to be a little "greener."
However, my biggest concern goes back about a week. My mother and I were coming down from a trip to the mountains when we noticed a haze in Conifer, about 30 miles South and West of Denver. The haze got worse as we dropped down into the Southern suburbs of Denver. Since it wasn't a humid day nor a cloudy day, we thought that there might be a wildfire burning somewhere along the foothills. It was only when we had made it far enough onto the plains to see the city that we realized the haze was caused by pollution. In 26 years I have never seen the brown cloud, a common site in Denver because of its topography, make it into the mountains, particularly not as far in as Conifer. The haze has remained, although it is not as severe as it was over the weekend. I can only guess that the influx of tens of thousands of people in the Denver area has caused our infamous brown cloud to broaden its roots. The Colorado sky most days really is beautiful, but this week it is blue with a hint of smog.
Will the "discount" carbon offsets somehow make up for the added environmental impacts on Denver from trash to pollution? And what about the tens of thousands of people not officially associated with the DNC who are here: protesters, celebrities, and, yes, community news sources? Are the emissions that these groups produce being taken into consideration? How about the extra miles that Denverites are being forced to drive in order just to live their everyday lives? The added emissions from people who usually take the lightrail to their jobs near the Pepsi Center or Union Station who now have to find an alternate form of transportation? Were any of these questions even addressed by the DNCC?
This may, indeed, be the "greenest" convention in history, but, sadly, that isn't saying much.
"DNC Boondoggle: Carbon Credits Fun Broken Turbine." FaceTheState.com. 26 July 2008. Face The State. 21 Aug. 2008. /facethestate.com/articles/dnc-boondoggle-carbon-credits-fund-broken-turbine>