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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Carbon Confessionals

Air Date: Week of

Ford has teamed up with an eco-investment group to provide car buyers with a way to offset their CO2 emissions. When people purchase a Terrapass their money is pooled with more than 10,000 other customers and invested in renewable energy sources like wind and methane. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Terrapass's inventor Karl Ulrich of the Wharton School.


MAN: Bless me, Father Phillip, for I have sinned. It’s been only 200 miles since my last Carbon Confessional.

PHILLIP: May the good Ford forgive you, my son. For your penance read the Kyoto Protocol and sign up for TerraPass. Now drive off in peace.


CURWOOD: A lot of people are feeling guilty about driving those gas guzzling, carbon-belching cars. Well, the Ford Motor Company has a better idea: greener miles through a program it calls "TerraPass."

Joining me to explain how “TerraPass” works is its creator. Karl Ulrich is a professor of operations and information management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Hello, sir.

ULRICH: Hi, there.

CURWOOD: Where’d you come up with this idea of the Terapass?

ULRICH: The Terrapass grows out of my own personal experience. I own some property in Vermont and I live in Philadelphia. And so I spent a lot of time driving between Philadelphia and Vermont in the summertime. On one of those long trips I was thinking about all of the fuel that I was consuming and started to think of ways that I might mitigate or reduce the impact that I was having by using all of that fuel.

CURWOOD: You felt badly about that. You felt the need to atone for your use of this fuel?

ULRICH: It was less atonement and more a desire to actually do something about it--to actually take care of the damage that I was causing.

CURWOOD: And so you got this idea to use money to offset the environmental impact. How does it work?

ULRICH: The way Terrapass works is that an individual consumer enrolls their automobile in Terrapass. They buy what we call a Terrapass for their automobile. It costs about $50 a year. We then take the proceeds of the sale of that Terrapass from all of our members, we pool them together and we make investments in technologies that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, that is carbon dioxide emissions in other parts of the economy.

CURWOOD: How do we know that these investments are actually offsetting?

ULRICH: That’s a good question. And there are actually two answers. The simple answer is that we actually go and look at the projects and get to know the people that are actually implementing the projects. And develop a level of trust that they’re actually doing what they say they’re going to do. We also engage a third party certifying agency called green-e.org, which has a set of standards that it applies to these projects and certifies that, in fact, the offset that we claim we’re providing is in fact delivered.

CURWOOD: Now, I could go on the Ford Motor Company website and find a little spot where I can click on Ford products and actually get linked right to your company and buy an offset for them. If I’m driving a Lincoln Towne car or a Lincoln Navigator or whatever. Some people would say that you’re helping Ford clean up its image…that it should have been making hybrid and high efficiency vehicles many many years ago. How do you respond to that?

ULRICH: Well, Ford has been taking a variety of actions on the environmental front. And we really don’t take a position on Ford per se. The way we look at it is that by getting access to Ford’s customers we can allow those customers to make a positive change for the better in terms of the environment. And so that, to us, is a benefit to society and given that we believe it’s a really good thing we think that Ford should get credit for providing those offsets to its consumers.

CURWOOD: Some people would say though, if you let people buy their way out of their carbon emissions and continue to buy fossil fuel burners that it just ensures there will always be a need to mitigate that carbon footprint and is just sort of treating the symptom and not really the root of the problem.

ULRICH: Well, push back a little bit on that. We do mitigate emissions. We just don’t do it at the tailpipe of that vehicle. So if a person were not to join Terapass then the mitigation or the remediation at the electrical utility where we cause the offset to occur wouldn’t happen. Now, there is a deeper question which is what does this do to consumer behavior? We find that members of Terrapass become quite active members of a community and begin to become more interested in climate change and the offset markets and the greenhouse effect generally. We actually think that Terrapass can be an agent or a mechanism for increasing awareness rather than just being a way to appease one’s guilt.

CURWOOD: Karl Ulrich teaches business at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Thanks so much, sir.

ULRICH: My pleasure.

CURWOOD: And now--more carbon confessionals with Father Phillip.


WOMAN: Bless me, Father Phillip, for I have emitted fewer greenhouse gasses. It's been 600 miles since my last confession in my new hybrid.

PHILLIP : Go, my dear, the road is blessed before you.

WOMAN: Thank you, Father.


MAN: Fill it up, will ‘ya, Father Phil! My Hummer’s on empty!



TerraPass website

Ford Motor Company announcement


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