On the trail of Dell's carbon footprint

While the PC maker is certainly early with its carbon-neutral claim, other companies will soon follow. As they do, there will be a need to seriously vet these claims.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Dell has declared itself carbon-neutral, but good luck defining and auditing what that means exactly.

Dell's Hortolandia, Brazil, facility

Assembling PCs at Dell's Hortolandia, Brazil, facility.

(Credit: Dell)

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting story on Dell and its carbon-neutral efforts. In a nutshell:

• There is no standard definition of carbon neutral;
• Purchasing carbon credits is vital;
• But the markets for carbon credits isn't regulated and is also in flux;
• And finally there's debate over whether a vendor should count emissions from suppliers in its footprint.

Those points are notable for companies well beyond Dell. While Dell is certainly early with its carbon-neutral claim, other companies will soon follow. For now, green tech looks recession-proof. Get ready for the carbon neutral audits.

A few key excerpts from the Journal story:

The amount of emissions Dell has committed to neutralize is known in the environmental industry as the company's "carbon footprint." But there is no universally accepted standard for what a footprint should include, and so every company calculates its differently. Dell counts the emissions produced by its boilers and company-owned cars, its buildings' electricity use, and its employees' business air travel.

In fact, that's only a small fraction of all the emissions associated with Dell. The footprint doesn't include the oil used by Dell's suppliers to make its computer parts, the diesel and jet fuel used to ship those computers around the world, or the coal-fired electricity used to run them.


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.

Toss in nascent markets for buying carbon credits and you see a lot of confusion ahead. To make matters worse, companies don't have to file carbon neutrality reports that are under generally accepted principles. In other words, you won't find the details of carbon neutrality in an annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In reality, none of this is surprising. Companies like Dell are ahead of the curve and in many respects make this carbon neutrality stuff up as they go along. As more companies start issuing carbon neutrality press releases, however, there will be a need to seriously vet these claims.

This article was first published as a blog post on ZDNet.com.

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