I’ll admit it: I’m different from most people. I have energy savings goals for my house and car. I usually shop at a local food co-op, paying more than I have to for organic items. I even work indirectly with renewable energy for a living. It wouldn’t be that hard to be labeled an environmentalist, except I don’t like that word because it turns so many people off (we like “-isms” more than we like “-ists”).

How do you measure up?

Photo: iStockphoto

Two years ago, someone sent me an email about the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration Voluntary Reporting of Greenhouse Gases Program. Wouldn’t it be funny, they wrote, if they signed up for the program, which was designed primarily for corporations? I thought, “Well, yes, it would,” and decided to sign up. (The person who suggested it never did.) Now I’m the most famous unknown you’ve never heard of: I can claim to be one of two Americans — out of more than 299,000,000 — who are currently participating in this national program. I am on the same list as Ford, AT&T, IBM, and 220 other companies.

What started out as a lark has grown into a story of contrasts, one where the United States’ major response to global warming consists of asking anyone who’s interested to register their greenhouse-gas reductions in a national database. The EIA program was started in 1992 by Congress as an effort to document the reductions that American companies would voluntarily implement. These participants could get credit for early actions taken on either the state, national, or global level. Fourteen years later, the U.S. is still promoting voluntary reductions.

The process of tracking emissions involves downloading software, submitting my information incorrectly, working with a staff person at EIA to correct it, and then contemplating my five metric tons of direct greenhouse-gas reductions. (I use the present tense because each of the last three years, I’ve managed to submit my information incorrectly. I have a spreadsheet and I know what I want to report, but the translation to their software just isn’t intuitive.) What is five metric tons? It’s 11,000 pounds. And according to the U.S. EPA, it’s equivalent to taking an average Toyota Corolla off the road.

The EIA staff members who work with participants to get accurate numbers and calculations are very nice people, who have been nothing but helpful in pointing out and helping me correct the errors of my data ways. But the data is all self-reported, as far as I can tell. There is no threat of an audit. I tell them how much I saved and they accept it, as long as it’s logical. I set my baseline and calculate my own reductions.

Let’s say in Year One, I emitted 10 tons of carbon dioxide, but in Year Two reduced it to five, thus saving five tons. If I stay at five tons emitted in Year Three, what should I report? No reductions, because I set a new baseline at five tons? Five tons of reductions, because my baseline is still the original 10 tons? Should I have used a lot of carbon to inflate my numbers one year and then reduced them significantly for the reported savings? If I start a family and our emissions go up, do I report the gross amount, or can I claim to be emitting even less on a per-capita basis? There aren’t clear rules one way or another.

As a result, the data quality in the EIA program isn’t robust enough to have monetary value in carbon dioxide trading markets. There are emerging carbon-trading markets in the U.S. and Europe, but the EIA data is unsuitable without independent verification. This spring, the European trading market lost more than 60 percent of its value because of a lack of trust in the data.

Still, the European market, which falls under the Kyoto Protocol agreements, seems stronger than the voluntary version in the U.S., the Chicago Climate Exchange, which has far fewer shares trading at a lower price.

It would be interesting to think about a day when all global carbon emissions have value because society finally sees that it’s in our best interests not to ignore global warming. One baby step might be to at least require data submission from emitters over a certain size. Many states are doing this already. Some states are also either suing the federal government or beginning to regulate greenhouse gases themselves. While it’s progress of a sort, this will create a patchwork of regulations, resulting in dissimilar costs for companies or products across state borders. It remains to be seen if these progressive states will be able to hold the political line against the argument that they are putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage.

As for the average person, events like Katrina and this summer’s heat waves are beginning to inspire concern about climate change. Recurring droughts and wildfires in the West bring the creep of anxiety to residents who don’t remember seeing anything like this before. Scientists will attempt to be technically correct by saying that any one event can’t be correlated to the long-term picture, but really, if we get people concerned for a potentially statistically spurious reason, does it matter? At least they’re engaged.

But what will that engagement look like? Will people be willing to accept higher prices because of a carbon tax? What about a carbon tax coupled with a repeal of the income tax? What if it included free health care too? What about a “carbon credit card” that requires you have carbon credits in your savings account to buy gas?

There really is no silver bullet on the horizon — we are buying time as advances in technology, energy prices, supply constraints, and government policies interplay with one another. The big question will be at what point they all intersect, and whether it will be soon enough to make a difference. Meanwhile, I don’t think EIA’s registry is priority No. 1 for the other 299,000,000-plus people in this country.

At times, I struggle with the relevance of my tiny actions. But I’ve come to the conclusion that they are necessary to build grassroots support for larger issues. I want to jump straight to a carbon tax with an inverse reduction of the income tax, but we’re really still at green pricing and light bulbs for most people. Eventually the light bulbs add up — I’ve got to keep that in mind.