Offsetting My Own Carbon Emissions: What’s the Deal with Individual Carbon Credits?
by Erika Zambello -- April 10th, 2014
I talk about climate change a lot. I’m not alone, most of my fellow Nicholas School graduate students and I spend a great deal of our time studying and discussing the causes and ramifications of global climate change. It’s important absolutely, but it’s also a little depressing, especially as I am still completing my studies and cannot launch myself whole-heartedly into a profession devoted to combating carbon emissions, deforestation, or any of the other contributing factors of climate change.
I was perhaps feeling a little bit of the climate blues until I began the unit on carbon credits for Lydia Olander’s Ecosystems Services course. I’m not a major corporation or a government entity, but I found websites that could not only calculate my approximate carbon footprint, but offer me different projects through which I could offset the carbon emissions that I currently caused. Could it be true? Could I, as an individual, a tiny part of the growing human population, really erase my individual contribution to global warming?
Yes and no, but with exciting possibilities.
In short, yes, my carbon offsets could reduce my carbon footprint. In a flurry of excitement, I logged onto two voluntary carbon credit websites, terrapass.com and carbonfund.org. First, I wanted to see the ramifications of the round trip flight I was taking home to Maine in April. 704 miles there, 704 miles back, and over a thousand pounds of carbon dioxide burned in between. I’ve always felt guilty about flights I take, but the alternative is not going home at all and as much as I want to be climate friendly, I do miss my family. After I plugged my flights into the TerraPass and Carbonfund.org websites, they calculated the emissions burned, and then how much I would have to pay towards a carbon offsetting program in order to “neutralize” my flight. Wow! For only $11.90 or $7.03, depending on if I used TerraPass or Carbonfund.org, I could balance the negative impact of my flight with a positive one. If I added the heat for my apartment, the amount of miles I put on my car (specific to my make and model!), and the rest of my flights that year, I could offset my carbon use for an entire year. A year! For way less than I anticipated too: $184.45 and $125.79 for TerraPass and Carbonfund.org respectively.
The ability I now had to take responsibility for my emissions was powerful- cue the inspirational choir singing. However, there are major caveats. Though I can offset my direct emissions, I am still supporting systems that are major sources of carbon dioxide worldwide. I eat beef and other meat products, which along with agriculture accounts for around 8% of American C02 emissions. I use paper products, which, even if it the wood is sustainably harvested, does cut down trees. I drive and fly and support both of those industries, which as of yet are slow in transferring to higher MPG models. I should really be focusing on reducing use as much as possible, not merely assuaging my practices and continuing on with no alteration of my behavior.
In addition, not all credit offsets are created equal. Not only is verification of different projects important, but type of verification is important as some standards are more strict than others. Finally, our professor cautioned us to look very closely at reforestation projects. At times reforestation in one area will result in increasing logging in another, thus the “offsets” you are paying your hard earned money for are, in effect, worthless.
So how does one navigate these gray areas of an emerging market? Luckily I have done my research, and I can tell you!
1) Look for organizations with low overhead values, which should be published in their annual report. That way, most of your money is going towards the carbon offset project, not the organization itself.
2) Look for multiple verification standards, which should also be lauded on their website.
3) Choose organizations that allow you to pick your offset project, and then allocate your money towards renewable energy programs. This way, you avoid some of the reforestation problems listed above.
4) If you can, buy at least 50% more than your offset requires, i.e. if you are calculated to owe $10, buy offsets for at least $15. The global population needs to drastically reduce carbon emissions, and by going above and beyond your footprint you are working towards returning to a world of lower carbon dioxide levels.
5) Tell your friends! The more people who participate in these carbon offset programs, the better. There are about 314 million people in the United States. What if only a third participated in these programs, and, like me, the average owed each year was $185. That’s over $19.4 billion dollars to go towards large-scale carbon offset projects that could make a huge difference. The more the merrier!
In the end, I went with offsets purchased from carbonfund.org. In addition to providing verification standards, the organization is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit, and the website allowed me to purchase credits for “Renewable Energy and Methane.” I’ve started small. This morning I paid $7.04 to offset my flight to Maine, plus an additional $7.04 to not only offset my carbon emissions, but go beneath them as well. In the next few months, I plan to add my other flights, my home heating costs, and my car. It’s a small step, I’m just one person. But I am adding another incentive to myself to reduce carbon use, while taking responsibility for what I cannot eliminate. I have to tell you, it makes me feel good!