Posted December 18th, 2010
Finding ways to make a professional ski team “green” is a tough job. On one hand we’ve made a commitment to developing young skiers into international competitors. On the other, we’ve also made environmental initiatives and awareness an equally important goal. It’s a difficult position to be in. The team isn’t going to sacrifice racing opportunities just because it may take some jet fuel to get to the start line, but we are also constantly working on ways to counter those rather inflexible decisions. We’ve put ourselves under a public microscope, at least within the skiing community, and the things we do really draw attention, both in negative and positive ways. Unfortunately for us, the majority of our “green” initiatives, namely projects we’ve worked on at Craftsbury, aren’t seen on race days away from home.
What the green problem really comes down to for us as skiers, though, is transportation. There is no way around it. We can’t avoid traveling, though we’ve done what we can to be efficient; the whole team fits in our diesel Sprinter that gets significantly better mileage than our old ski van. Flying is the stickler, and every season there are important races on the west coast and in Europe.
One rather controversial way to minimize the impact of air travel is carbon offsets. We’ve recently joined this controversy in a big way through an agreement with Brighter Planet to offset all of the team’s travel to races for the 2010-11 season—some 110,000 tons of carbon we are responsible for over the winter. This one is going to give the folks looking through the microscope something to talk about.
It wasn’t an easy decision for the team to make. There has been lots of print about fraudulent offset companies taking money from costumers and putting it directly into their pockets; no trees were planted, no windmills were built. There’s the papal indulgence argument, that carbon offsets are the modern equivalent of what set Martin Luther off a half-millenium ago, a payment for absolution rather than changed behavior. And there’s the criticism of forepayment; the fact that helping build a future windmill isn’t actually offsetting your carbon footprint today. Tree planting isn’t as effective as they claim. Indigenous land rights are being violated. There’s no regulation in this voluntary market of $700 million per year.
There’s certainly plenty of nay-saying when it comes to carbon offsets. But Brighter Planet seems to stand on firmer ground than the shaky depictions by the media. We know where our offsets are going: exactly to financing a wind turbine at the Hanson Farm in Minnesota. While this turbine might not be directly offsetting our travel by this winter, what’s more important is that our investment is leading to additional clean energy production that otherwise would not have been built. Brighter Planet also has complete transparency with their offset projects; the selection process includes a public comment period for those under consideration and annual audits of sales and retirements.
The company started in Vermont with a credit card offering carbon offset points for purchases made instead of frequent flier miles or cash rewards. It seems a just substitution. They also donate a percentage of their profits to the Project Fund, an online community where Brighter Planet members vote on projects proposed by Brighter Planet members. The winning proposals receive a grant to implement their project in their home communities. Craftsbury is looking forward to putting some of our own projects up to the Project Fund and looking into using their card for team expenses.
While I can’t say that we’ve changed our behavior when it comes to transportation, we have invested in shifting towards a clean energy future. It doesn’t feel like absolution to me—it feels like we’re doing what we can as a relatively inconsequential group of cross-country skiers in northern Vermont. We don’t really have many other options. Maybe supporting renewable energy projects now can lead to a better solution to the clean transportation dilemma.
If guilty consciences are voluntarily putting up $700 million per year, imagine what a guilty government might be able to do with their investments. We can only hope that serious investment in renewable energy at a global scale may follow. For those looking through the microscope, carbon offsets aren’t a solution, but they certainly help.
Tim Reynolds races for the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, an Olympic development cross-country ski program based at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center. Check out his team at www.greenracingproject.com.