01/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Carbon Neutrality: What It Means And What It Doesn't Mean

The Wall Street Journal reported today on corporate goals of "carbon neutrality" and just what those goals entail. The story presents a highly skeptical view of just how much of Dell's carbon footprint the company has successfully offset with carbon credits -- the reporter guesses that "the company is only neutralizing about 5% of the greenhouse gases that go into the making and use of its products."

Then the story offers a skeptical view of the concept of carbon credits themselves, which do not actually reduce the amount of pollutants created or fossil fuels used by a company.

Some of the few hopeful words in the story:

Dell's drive offers an early road map of the thorny questions companies will face as they attempt the massive emission reductions scientists say are needed to curb global warming. In a global economy with so many interconnected players, figuring out who should be responsible for cutting which emissions -- and how to ensure those cuts happen -- is dizzyingly complicated. Amid that confusion, Dell's story illustrates the fuzziness of some of today's corporate environmental claims.

Some observers say companies pledging carbon neutrality at this point could be jumping the gun. There's not yet uniform agreement on what should be counted in such programs, says Pankaj Bhatia, a policy expert at the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based environmental group that is working with many corporations, including Dell, to develop a standard for carbon neutrality.

In October, an all-star team of green panelists for the Huffington Post asked questions of a Dell sustainability expert, including asking about greening customers' computer usage and the supply chain. As the WSJ reports, those areas are not included in Dell's self-described carbon footprint, but Dell's Director of Sustainable Business, Tod Arbogast, offered some answers (disclaiming beforehand that it gets a little wonky):

We're taking a series of steps to drive environmental efforts throughout our global supply chain. Last year, we became the first in our industry to join the Carbon Disclosure Project's Supply Chain Leadership Collaboration to help suppliers access standard methodologies to report CO2 emissions. We also began requiring primary suppliers to report greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions data during quarterly business reviews. If a supplier doesn't identify and report specific emissions data, its overall score will likely be reduced. A Dell supplier's volume of business can be affected by the scores earned on reviews.