Save the Planet by Surfing the Web, 'Green' Websites Promise

On the internet, anyone can be an environmentalist. All you have to do, is, well, nothing. A number of "green" internet businesses promise users they can help save the planet by doing little more than surfing the right websites.

For instance, Blackle.com claims to help you save energy by offering a version of Google that has a black background, which may cut down on your display's electricity consumption. There are green search engines, green shopping sites, and even green dating sites -- it's an impressive abundance of good intentions.

Unfortunately, the fight against global warming is slightly more challenging than changing your homepage or joining a Facebook group.

"People who want to reduce their carbon footprint and combat global warming are going to have to take action in their lives," says Kate Smolski, a global warming campaigner for Greenpeace. "They need to do things like drive cars that are more gas efficient or change to energy-efficient appliances. And people should demand action from decision makers."

That hasn't stopped startups from capitalizing on the growing trendiness of anything "green."

CO2Stats.com promises that by installing a couple lines of code into a website, users can reduce pollutants. The code, founders say, will track how much carbon dioxide running your website produces, based on the amount of traffic to the site. CO2Stats says it will then purchase carbon offsets accordingly. (When an offset is purchased -- either by a large corporation or well-meaning individuals -- the money goes toward environmental projects, such as wind farms, that offset the carbon emissions.)

The founders of CO2Stats, Ph.D. students Alex Wissner-Gross and Tim Sullivan, are repeat entrepreneurs who recently sold (to Santa Barbara-based SurfMyAds.com) a web-based business that prints the entire text of public-domain books on posters. They also run a site called Isonme.com, where people upload photos and get instant advice from strangers to questions like "Am I too thin?" and "What do you think of my new haircut?"

They launched CO2Stats.com at the end of October and so far, they say, 500 sites have installed the widget, contributing to nearly 2 metric tons, or about 4,400 pounds, in carbon offsets. At that rate, you might be better off buying your own offsets instead of installing the widget: 6,000 pounds in offsets costs just $30 through TerraPass. There's no evidence that CO2Stats.com has spent a dime on carbon offsets -- the founders claim they've spent "hundreds" of dollars on the project, but they haven't produced any certificates proving their purchases yet.

Greenbook, an application available on Facebook, also promises big things to its users for minimal effort, although it is making somewhat more progress. Greenbook's purchases of carbon offsets are funded by payments from monthly sponsors of the application. So far, Greenbook has bought 345,718 pounds in renewable energy credits, or roughly 157 metric tons. Depending upon what sort of offsets one purchases, that could cost anywhere from hundreds of dollars to thousands of dollars. Assuming, though, that Greenbook spent $3,000 on credits in December, and it has an installed based of 400,000, that would imply it has spent less than one cent per user for the month.

It's true that these sites are purchasing carbon offsets, and in some cases that can have beneficial environmental effects. But while it's true that every bit counts, some bits are more useful than others.

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