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Salesforce.com has become Silicon Valley's latest high-tech convert to the green computing crusade, committing $126,000 to become "carbon neutral" this year.

The software as a service (SaaS) pioneer is supporting five renewable energy projects to compensate for the nearly 20,000 tones of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere by its offices, staff travel, and data center operations last year.

Salesforce.com is joining a green IT crusade dominated by computer manufacturers who've given themselves a bad name for churning out products that involve toxic manufacturing processes, guzzle power, and then blight the ecosystem once they reach the end of their useful lives.

Sun Microsystems is arguably leading the high-tech charge, through speeches, by providing servers running lower-power chips, and with a corporate commitment to reduce its green house gas emissions to 20 per cent of levels in 2002 by 2012.

Salesforce.com is buying-in to so-called "carbon offsetting" and this comes at a time of growing debate over the worth of such schemes. Today the British government unveiled its own controversial plans to certify carbon offsetting schemes. The program is intended to help consumers pick offsetting programs.

Carbon offsetting involves paying for things like trees or sources of renewable energy to make up for CO2 produced during activities like air travel or watching TV.

Friends of the Earth has criticized carbon offsetting as a dangerously misleading activity, because programs fail to change the behavior producing CO2 in the first place.

The environmentalist lobby group warned that carbon offsetting isn't a "magic bullet" and should be considered only as a package of measures to reduce emissions. Friends of the Earth has "strong concerns" over the environmental credibility of carbon offsetting projects and wants CO2 targets to be set by government.

Carbon off-setters are concerned over the lack of standards and regulation of schemes, which could mean individuals and businesses waste their money while the planet boils. Tom Stoddard, co-founder of NativeEnergy - working with Salesforce.com - told The Register that standards would help bring credibility to the carbon offset market.

Among the problems in today's unregulated world: money that goes into running projects rather than saving the planet and knowing which trees to plant and where to put them, as some species help to increase climatic temperature.

Salesforce.com screened some 30 projects and five third-party organizers before picking NativeEnergy, and seems to have based its decision on a number of features. In lieu of guidelines, the company has spread its bets but there appears no clear correlation between carbon produced and the offset. Instead, NativeEnergy uses a sliding scale that includes purchase of energy from projects while keeping the price of that energy at an affordable market rate.

So far, Salesforce.com is living up to the stereotype of the carbon offsetter feared by Friends of the Earth, of having done little to reduce its actual emissions, beyond subsidizing employee transport and recycling in recent years.

That's about to change, though, and Salesforce.com has promised carbon offsetting will be the first in a series of measures that actually tackle the emissions associated with its offices, travel and data centers.

A sustainability council is planned that will evaluate activities such as subsidizing employees' hybrid cars, instituting more recycling and re-assessing office equipment. "Now we've taken this [first] step we have employees coming out of the wood work and starting to look at what else we can do," executive director of the Salesforce.com Foundation Suzanne DiBianca said.

The choice was clear: "We could do something now or we could do nothing while we do the analysis. Some people feel offsetting carbon doesn't make any difference. I believe it does, or we wouldn't have invested in this," DiBianca said.

A Friends of the Earth spokesman supported Salesforce.com's decision to combine renewable projects while tackling its emissions: "Carbon offsetting is an easy excuse to carry on business as usual. Renewable energy [projects] are different... as long as the company is reducing its own emissions," he said. ®

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