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Shopping for Carbon Offsets

in Travel

NativeenergyNow that I’m home and getting caught up on work, paying bills, laundry and sniffing the sweet spring rain, I decided to go shopping for carbon offsets to neutralize the "cost" of my recent airline travel.

I completely missed Earth Day as it took place the same day as the last day of the Readers Studio. (Thanks to Kim and Cate for reminding me of the Day.)  But the Saturday before (April 14th) I went to the Step It Up demonstration in Maine with Craig and the kids. I was pretty darned impressed, BTW, by my son and daughter-in-law who have become eco-conscious while I wasn’t looking.  They buy only organic, local food and shared their handbook for conscious consumerism with me — "Every time you buy something, it’s like a vote, Mom!"  Wow.  I think I raised a good man.

Anyway.  Some time ago I heard of the idea of buying "carbon
offsets" to balance out the damage we do to the environment, especially
when we travel.  Traveling by air is especially harmful:  "A single
international flight can emit as much greenhouse gas per passenger as a
year of driving."  (see "Carbon Offsets Demystified," from Co-op America)   

I had to admit I was not looking forward to spending yet more money
on this trip (even though my JetBlue airfare was relatively
inexpensive).  But we all need to create new habits if we’re going to
solve the climate crisis, and if I’m willing to make a contribution to
NRDC or our local Land Trust, why wouldn’t I be willing to contribute
to companies that are investing in renewable energy sources?

So I started out by reading this WikiHow article on buying carbon offsets, then moved over to the Co-op America piece mentioned above.  I checked out and but finally decided to go with Native Energy, since they were endorsed by Step It Up.

I used their travel calculator
to figure out that my flight from Seattle to Portland, Portland to New
York, and New York to Seattle produced 2.079 tons of CO2 from flying
5169 miles.  I paid $36.00 to offset 3 tons (rounded it up).  I chose
to put my dollars towards 100% Wind Builders:

"With NativeEnergy, you can help finance and build new clean and
renewable energy projects that help Native Americans and Alaska Natives
create sustainable economic benefits, and that help America’s family
farmers compete with agribusiness.  These projects will displace
electricity from fossil fuels and reduce other greenhouse gas emissions
on your behalf, making up for the CO2 emissions you can’t avoid."

Hey.  Who knew $36.00 would do so much?

Update:  Kim sent me the link to this article, Investigation Uncovers Carbon Credits Smokescreen, which suggests that  "some organizations are paying for emissions reductions that do not take place"  and "others are meanwhile making big profits from carbon trading for very small expenditure and in some cases for clean-ups that they would have made anyway."   Which is very distressing.   Not only do we have to worry about our own carbon emissions, we also have to worry about whether or not the company we choose to buy carbon credits from is a scam or not.

So I took a second look at the WikiHow article and found this warning:

The quality and cost of carbon offsets can vary widely, and offsets that don’t result in real reductions in greenhouse emissions aren’t a good value at any price. Be sure that the company you buy from provides independent verification of their carbon purchases and adheres to external standards of offset quality. Further, look for companies that list the date, amount, and source of all of their carbon purchases.

Good.  That’s a good guideline.

Then I reread the Co-op America article and saw this:

Look for offset providers that are independently verified. There is currently no common standard or certification that guarantees offset quality. The best offset providers find various ways to assure customers that a knowledgeable third party has examined and approved their practices. For example, TerraPass hired the Center for Resource Solutions (CRS) to perform an independent audit of their program, and it made the document available online.

Another good guideline.   As I said above, I chose Native Energy because I heard about them from Step It Up, Stop Global Warming, Amber Lotus and (I believe) the website for An Inconvenient Truth, although I couldn’t find it when I looked just now.   I do hope they are legitimate.  If anyone knows otherwise, please let me know.   

Yet another update 4/27: Trust David Suzuki weigh in on the carbon-neutral controversy, and to come up with some clear information and guidelines.  He even has lists of carbon offset vendors — both "Gold Standard" and "General," while making sure we understand he is not endorsing any of them. 

Thoughtful, sparkling comments. . .

  • d Fri - Apr 27th 2007 6:13 am

    I love how open you are with your processes and struggles.
    And I love your heart and willingness to go for it.
    I too found it a bit daunting to worry about scam when looking into the carbon offsetting.
    In the end, I chose to take a leap of faith and trust what I was drawn to and Her flow. I had looked into it a number of times and it took awhile to find the right company for me and the transaction to happen.
    Seems like that is all I can ever do in life-do my leg work and then jump. And that seems to be the important thing for me.
    Thank you as always for sharing your humanness with the world.

  • d Fri - Apr 27th 2007 6:17 am

    Plus, life sure doesn’t seem to be about pure or perfect solutions. I can’t think of any.

  • John Fri - Apr 27th 2007 7:08 am

    I am really surprised how many are falling for buying carbon credits (scam) if you really are interested in saving energy buy thing that directly benefit you, your self, and save energy, and not some broker taking 20% and putting it in his pocket. Wait till they make you pay for these credits, let’s see how you feel then, and are you allowed to use the credits for tax deductions, now who is really paying, yes the tax payer, now you paying double for something you never used.

  • Joanna Fri - Apr 27th 2007 8:19 am

    d – thank you for your encouragement about my struggle to “do the right thing.” Clearly more research into these companies is needed. John, I’m not yet convinced that all carbon-offset companies are scams. I’m already “buying green” as much as possible in my daily life. I heard Al Gore say that he buys credits to offset his travel and home, but I don’t know where he buys them from.
    However, has an impressive list of “partners” including NRDC and Seventh Generation. They’ve also posted info about transparency and verification/certification. At this point I’m inclined to trust them until I’m proven wrong.

  • Teresa Michelsen Sat - Apr 28th 2007 1:52 pm

    Some of these issues explain why many economists (both on the right and the left) now believe that a carbon tax is both more economically efficient and more transparent than carbon offsets. There are fewer transaction costs and it is much harder to finagle than the offsets. If all of us (consumers and businesses alike) are taxed equally for activities that create carbon emissions, there will be a strong incentive to avoid these taxes by creating manufacturing processes and consumer goods that generate fewer emissions. Plus the taxes can be used to research these technologies.

  • Teresa Michelsen Sat - Apr 28th 2007 1:54 pm

    I should have said above – but in the meantime, 🙂 carbon offsets are a good idea if they are researched carefully, as you were doing. ANYTHING that helps should be pursued in the absence of a stronger market mechanism.

  • Joanna Sat - Apr 28th 2007 2:32 pm

    Teresa, I should have thought to ask you about this in the first place! Of course you would know about these things — it’s your speciality. Personally I like the idea of a carbon tax. If it hurts or benefits us financially, we’ll make the change. I would be curious to know how many people actually are buying carbon offsets — what percentage of people who fly, for example. I don’t suppose there’s really any accurate way to know.