Kyle Kornack says the juice company he ran with his friends was trying to be environmentally responsible. He wanted to look at their manufacturing process to understand the contribution they were making to climate change. “And see what the carbon footprint of each drink is,” Kornack said.
They figured out how to cut some of those carbon emissions. And to balance out what they couldn’t eliminate, they looked into buying so-called carbon offsets. Those are payments to programs that are actively removing carbon from the atmosphere by doing things like planting trees. One day he got talking to the owner of a gas station in Jamaica Plain, and realized the owner controlled what price he charged for gas.
“It got me thinking well what if we can apply a carbon offset and integrate that into gasoline?" he said. "Turns out it can be done for less than a dime.”
And that became the idea for a new start-up company. What if they gave people the chance — right at the gas pump — to pay ten more cents a gallon, and that money would go to carbon-reducing projects? Carbon offsets are usually bought by big companies that either are mandated to or want some good PR. But what if any of us could buy them and actually be carbon-neutral when we drive our cars?
“I thought it was immediately gold, and I literally wanted to stop making drinks,” said Liam Madden, one of Kornack’s business partners.
It took their other partner, David Cooch, a little longer to come around, but he said he was fully on board when he realized what the idea could mean for the environment.
“Nearly two thirds of [the] American population is concerned with climate change," Cooch said. "But you don't really see, you know, this two thirds of people changing their lifestyle significantly or beginning to actually take action on climate change. And I think part of the reason is that there is a lack of access to sort of the simplicity and the affordability of being involved in the carbon market and be involved in helping live sustainably and fund climate solutions.”
They put the juice company aside. and focused on starting what they now call the Green Gas Movement. Their vision was a simple one.
The idea is that when drivers show up to a pump, they see a button that says, "Would you like to drive green today?" — just like the button that asks whether you want to add a car wash or use credit to pay for the purchase. "Or they could have a green gas debit card in their wallet,” says Madden.
And by doing that, they could make a small investment in programs like Taking Root, which pays farmers in Nicaragua to reforest clear-cut areas. The farmers plant trees that grow coffee and other products that provide them with an income. Alvin Castellon is in Nicaragua, and works with about 600 families in the program who have reforested around 5,000 acres.
“There’s been a big impact environmentally," Castellon said through a translator. "But the impact has also been social, such as employing the local community."
But are drivers here in the U.S. willing to spend an extra 10 cents a gallon to have that impact? The Green Gas guys point to a study that offered to sell Uber ride-sharing customers a carbon offset after their trip. Depending on the amount, between 50 and 75 percent of them said they’d keep doing it. And the idea’s popular at one Brighton gas station.
“Sure. If this helps the ecosystem, will be great," said Nelson Villareyna, who's from Nicaragua, but now lives on Boston. “I could see that being something that would alleviate the guilt that I feel as somebody who cares about the environment but also has to drive my car a lot,” said Grace Coburn of Brighton. “As long as we're not talking about gas going back to $5 a gallon, if it keeps within the same price range that we are seeing, [it] is fine,” said Jeff Lopes of Quincy.
But some are skeptical. “I don't trust [it]," said Daniel Sanieoff of Brookline. "I don't know where is the money going to go. Everybody pockets everything. So I don't trust anybody.”
It’s a reasonable concern. About a decade ago, there were some carbon offset programs that didn’t really have the impact they said they did. But there’s now a system in place to independently verify that the work’s really being done.
You can’t easily buy carbon offsets at the pump yet. But the Green Gas Movement is getting closer. They won an MIT contest for environmental start-up ideas, and recently launched a crowd-funding campaign.
They’re hoping the first step in their movement — a credit card for gas purchases — will be ready to launch in the fall.