My conversations lately have been turning more and more to sustainability, and more often than not lead to the "So exactly what can we do?" question. This eventually brings us to some discussion of carbon offsets, the topic of this post, and one of the more head-scratching issues on the list. Indeed, much has been written about these potentially beneficial little commodities--but I sometimes wonder how much has actually been communicated?
So I thought I'd take a stab at it--with both a top level view and some jumping off points in case you want to dig deeper. It begins with the acceptance that we all emit carbon dioxide, whether we want to or not, and no matter how hard we work at being green. Remember...
- We emit a full ton of CO2 when we drive about 6,000 miles in our hybrid, or a mere 1,350 miles in our large SUV.
- We emit roughly same amount when we fly 2,000 miles in a plane
- The average American's direct emissions from household energy and transportation amounts to about 10 tons per person.
And after we've put the solar panels on the roof, installed the energy efficient appliances, and tried to conserve our way to salvation, we still have to account for the emissions generated to produce the food we eat and the clothes we wear. There is simply no way to avoid being guilty.
There is, however, a way to take responsibility.
Here's where offsets come in. Offsets allow us to contribute to a reduction of emissions, by helping fund new and ongoing energy efficiency, renewable energy generation (typically from solar, methane, or wind sources), or carbon sequestration projects. (The latter refers to the removal and storage of CO2 from the atmosphere...think trees). More specifically, for every ton of carbon dioxide you inevitably still create, you can eliminate some or all of it through a net reduction you support elsewhere. In an ideal sense, if you were to thus offset all the emissions that you couldn't eliminate through lifestyle changes, you would be able to claim that you had attained the enviable state of zero carbon footprint, or carbon neutrality.
Offsetting CO2 works for individuals (the retail scale), corporations, and institutions. It allows for the offsetting of emissions from manfacturing, transportation, travel, fossil fuel based energy generation, travel, and simple household running. It is a very hot topic in the sustainability arena and, as I hope you will see, a necessity in turning our greenhouse gas imbalance around.
But it is not a silver bullet.
I think green business guru, Joel Makower, sums it up memorably when he writes "...buying offsets for an energy-wasteful home or business and calling it environmentally responsible is akin to buying a Diet Coke to go with your double bacon cheeseburger -- and calling it a weight-loss program. Efficiency (and calorie reduction!) comes first." You said it. Offsets do not preclude conservation and minimization of your emissions per se. Nor do they come first.
In efforts to be smart about emissions within your sphere of control (and this applies equally to businesses as well as individuals), you begin with an assessment of the amount of CO2 you generate--known as your carbon footprint--and address the waste and inefficiencies you can directly. Then comes the time to look at those remaining, and for now unavoidable tons of carbon you emit, and look for offset opportunities.
And you won't have to look far. There are dozens of companies and non-profit organizations who provide easy ways to calculate your footprint, and will offer offsets for any budget, and across a range of projects (see links below). For less than $100, the average American can offset their annual personal footprint--as reported in A Consumer's Guide to Retail Carbon Offset Providers, issued in late 2006 by the nonprofit Clean Air-Cool Planet.There are numerous organizations and web sites that will take you step by step through the process. Here, for example, is one helpful overview provided by the David Suzuki Foundation.
Offsets do raise issues.
Somewhere along the line, your faith will be shaken. Perhaps it will happen when you hear that "Carbon offsets are just like paying for your right to pollute." Or, "You're just paying off your guilt." And you will read that offsets are "counterproductive" and distract from the essential reductions we need to see in the use of fossil fuels. But if you venture into offsets after taking a good, hard look at the actions you can take to reduce your footprint in the first place--eliminate unneccesary trips, switch your lights, buy a hybrid, etc.--you'll be doing a good thing. As for the guilt feelings, I believe that your new and more sustainable practices will speak for themselves.
The experts, too, point out a number of concerns about offsets, which do suggest that we are still in a 'buyer beware' mode. After all, at this point in time, offsets are voluntary, and are not formally regulated, certified, or monitored. This article, from the January 10th Christian Science Monitor gives a nice overview.
And then there is the issue of additionality, namely, did your offset contribution fund emission reductions beyond those that were already in place (in a business-as-usual sense)? This, in fact, was one of the questions that prompted the comprehensive, independent study and the report mentioned above.
Further concerns are evident in debates about which categories of offsets are most effective, notably in the finding that carbon sequestration through reforestation may have significant downsides--i.e., the release of large amounts of carbon from the soil during planting.
The picture keeps changing...stay tuned.
Clearly, carbon offsets are not a panacea. But the bottom line message is clear: offsets today represent one of the most viable mechanisms for taking responsibility--personal as well as corporate--for one's contribution to global warming. They are increasingly easy to access, relatively economical, and very useful in helping the shift away from fossil fuel consumption. Just remember--don't offset what you can conserve or otherwise reduce. Do them both, and your eConsciousness meter will go up a notch or two. Guaranteed.
Even as I'm writing this, the world of offsets is changing. Here's a sampling of what's to come...
Joel Makower reports in climatebiz.com that U.K. retail giant Marks & Spencer announced a plan that will lead to the company becoming carbon neutral by 2012. That DHL is planning to become the first company to offer carbon-neutral delivery. And that Dell Computer launched a carbon initiative that plants trees to allow customers to offset the carbon impact of using their computers.
Carbon offset provider TerraPass just announced a partnership with Sam's Club and manufacturer Karcher to bundle offsets with the company's pressure washer product--a first for TerraPass.
And another offset provider, ClimateSure, has introduced the first insurance product that comes with carbon offsets built in--at no higher cost to consumers than traditional plans.
Interesting and helpful links...
Carbon footprint calculators--on line and very quick and simple to use, for household as well as travel calculations. Also great for giving the gift of offsets to you friends:
Offset providers--a sampling to get you started. All provide additional help and background information:
All of a sudden I feel like I'm going out on a limb...but here goes. I suspect some of you may have questions. And although I'm no climate expert, I'll do my best to answer them or direct you to places where you can find clarity. So step up, and log yours by clicking on 'Comments' below. It's quick. It's easy. And it's anonymous, if you insist.