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Jake Whitcomb shows off the prototype for his carbon-neutral credit card. Photo by Ari Joseph

Jacob Whitcomb develops carbon-neutral credit card

July 29, 2005

MIDDLEBURY, Vt.-On behalf of Middlebury College, senior Jacob Whitcomb traveled to New York City this summer to accept the 2005 Climate Champion Award from Clean Air-Cool Planet (CACP), together with recent graduates Andrew Rossmeissl and John Hanley and Middlebury College Assistant Professor of Economics Jon Isham.  The Portsmouth, N.H.-based nonprofit presented the award at its conference on global warming, titled "Global Warming Solutions," on June 8.  The CACP award is presented every two years to individuals and organizations for their actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the threat of global warming.  College trustee Linda Whitton joined the Middlebury group to receive the award in recognition of Middlebury's many initiatives as a college community: a campus-wide emissions inventory; the appointment of a carbon reduction initiative working group to analyze and react to students' recommendations, and devise a plan of action; and the offering of three courses-"Path to Carbon Neutrality," "Building the New Climate Movement" and "Environmental Economics"-that each resulted in specific student action.

As a result of "Environmental Economics," taught by Isham, Whitcomb, Rossmeissl and Hanley developed an innovative carbon-reduction measure that was specifically commended by the CACP award.  They created a model for a carbon-neutral credit card plan that rewards its users with the purchase of carbon offsets.

"The card's plan is similar to a typical rewards program," said Whitcomb, "but, instead of getting airline miles, our cardholders can become carbon-neutral simply by making normal credit card purchases."  According to Whitcomb, the card is designed so that one percent of the money charged to its owner would be invested in funding the development and promotion of renewable energy, offsetting the amount of carbon pollution generated every day by an average individual consumer.

"Though carbon offset opportunities are available for companies and businesses, this credit card would be the first to bring this emerging market to individual consumers," Whitcomb said. "And this is the stinger: it won't cost the cardholder a dime. There would no membership or annual fees like there would be with typical credit card reward programs."

The carbon-neutral credit card plan was first conceptualized by Isham and presented to his class as one option for a service-learning component to the coursework.  Under Isham's mentorship, Whitcomb, Rossmeissl and Hanley worked with Native Energy, a renewable energy business based in Vermont, to develop investment strategies for the credit card program.

"I'm very optimistic about the project," Whitcomb said.  "It has been received very well by everybody we've approached.  Even non-credit card users have expressed interest in the card."
 Before embarking on his final year at the college toward graduation in 2006, Whitcomb will continue to work on the project throughout the summer with Isham.  "We are building contacts and developing an attractive business plan aimed at investors and financial institutions alike," he said.