A different kind of net neutrality: Carbon Offsetting Web 2.0

Flickr Green

A couple months ago I had an idea that I’ve wanted to socialize since, but had only taken to doing so behind the scenes. Things being as they are, I’ve had little time to really advance this cause further, other than push it on a few friends who, so far, have reacted quite positively.

Prompted by Jeremy Zawodny’s post about Yahoo going carbon neutral and in support of Chris Baskind’s month-long effort to get high quality environmental links added to his Lighter Footstep group, I thought I’d finally write this up to see if it draws any interest.

The idea is rather simple and requires but one piece of support infrastructure that fortunately my fellow citizen coworker Ivan Storck is already hard at work on (more about that later).

So what’s the idea? Well, quite simply, it’s a web service that you use to offset the carbon footprint of your customers using your app. This would be mostly beneficial for larger services, but it’s my belief that every little bits counts!

For freemium services like Basecamp WordPress and Last.fm, providing an option for paying members to add $1/month to their bill in order to offset their use of your web service is where it begins. In exchange for this contribution, they would get a special distinction within the community, like a green avatar or badge to denote their carbon neutral status:

Last.fm Green

Now, this might seem like a trivial incentive, but then you might also be surprised to learn that the number one reason that people pay to upgrade their Flickr accounts is not because they need more storage or unlimited uploads, but instead because they want that tiny little PRO label next to their name. Offering a similar incentive on social networks — and making “offsetting cool” becomes a way to propagate this behavior, ultimately working towards completely offsetting the entirety of Web 2.0.

Now, those of you who have read up on or know anything about the power that servers draw will quickly be able to recognize that $1 month to offset a single user account is going overboard, given that it technically only costs a few cents per month to power most people’s individual use of social networking sites. And while you wouldn’t be wrong, you’ve hit on an interesting social component of this campaign: those who want to offset can do so, and in doing so, won’t just be offsetting their footprint, but some their neighbors as well, in an act straight out of Caterina Fake’s culture of generosity. So it’s not so much about offsetting one’s personal use, but on offsetting at a social level — and that this good deed is reflected a user’s avatar or badge means that anyone can effectively “upgrade” themselves to carbon neutral status — once they get annoyed that all their friends have “leveled up” and they haven’t. Meanwhile, those who have upgraded as a proactive choice can feel reassured that their influence is affecting those around them to make similar decisions, even if for different reasons — in the end, the result doubleplusgood.

So, about that API that I mentioned. It’s important to realize that 1) we’re in the early stages of and the 2) not all carbon offsetting funds are created equal (this is something I’m becoming evermore familiar with as we move to certify Citizen Space as a green office). Therefore, Ivan (who I mentioned and who also runs Sustainable Marketing and Sustainable Websites) has begun work on an API that will allow companies to purchase carbon offsets in bulk based on the actual amount of power consumed in something like a server farm evnironment (where power measurements are fairly easy to come by). Once initiated, the purchase will likely take place through one of Ivan’s affiliates based here in San Francisco called 3 Phases. In any case, we’re in the beginning phases of making this happen, but if you’re interested in helping or in offsetting your customers’ usage, leave a comment or drop me a note and we’ll see if we can’t push this work forward.

Likewise, if you can think of other ways to minimize the environmental footprint of your webservice or web office, blog about it and let others know! We’re doing what we can to create green coworking spaces and the more success stories we come across, the better.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: Molly.com (YC W18), Uber, Google.

8 thoughts on “A different kind of net neutrality: Carbon Offsetting Web 2.0”

  1. One of the many things I’m really proud that we did at Gotham Ruby Conference in our inaugural year is that we offset the carbon footprint of our speakers and attendees (including travel, etc.) by 45 tons. Unfortunately the calculations weren’t precise by any means but I’m sure we’ll be looking to continue this precedent.

    We went with climatefriendly.org, an Australian organization affiliated with the World Wildlife Fund. They fund Gold Standard-accredited clean energy projects in Australia, so we feel reasonably secure that our donation was going to effective work.

  2. At first I was really against the concept of ‘carbon offsets’. Dallas is the capital of non-profit organizations designed to ‘enrich’ those who run them so I am always skeptical of such ‘charitable’ efforts. So why have I changed my mind?

    First, it is hard to argue that there isn’t HUGE money to be made in the ‘carbon offset’ business (literally billions of dollars). Almost every player in the space today is in it for themselves, playing lip service to the environment. If there could be a model whereby NO ONE made any money or directed the flow of money the idea could work.

    How do you build an infrastructure that uses or directs 0% of the funds it collects? How can we impact the environment without lining someones pockets? Hmm…

  3. Yes, there’s some controversy around carbon offsets, and I’d love to hear if anyone has done research on which programs are better than others. I went with Carbon Fund but didn’t do a lot of research in advance.

    And yes, like Chris says, putting in a little extra, more than covers your own consumption, makes up for all the people who don’t!

    If there’s some research on ppl wanting the tiny PRO label on their name vs. unlimited storage, I’d love to see it. 🙂 But I don’t deny it’s a very strong incentive.

  4. I love the idea of simple web services that make it easy to “do the right thing.” Few of us have the spare cycles to do this (and other social/environmental activism) well, so anything that takes the guesswork and pain out of it has the potential to have a huge impact. Let’s make it easy for a lot more people and companies to say “yes!”

  5. I think that this is a terrific idea.

    People who are choosing to go green do want to be recognised for it.

    And for many of us who are addicted to social sites like flickr or last.fm, an extra dollar onto our account fee is a simple way to gain that recognition

  6. Carbon offsetting strikes me as not only absurd but the contemporary equivalent of buying a seat in heaven. With your own personalized nameplate even.

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