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Buying carbon offsets lets you negate CO2 emissions from just about any activity—everything from flying and driving to powering your home. You enjoy carbon neutral work and play while pumping funds into eco-friendly projects that remove greenhouse gases from the air or prevent them from being emitted in the first place.

How to buy carbon offsets

Buying carbon offsets is just one strategy in any broader effort to go carbon neutral. Start with eco-friendly lifestyle changes that cut your energy consumption (and greenhouse gas emissions), such as turning off lights, driving a hybrid car, walking or riding a bike to work, and purchasing green products and services.

Granted, in today's world it's virtually impossible to limit all greenhouse emissions to zero, but buying offsets that support carbon-cutting projects (like wind farms, biomass ventures, and initiatives that destroy the potent greenhouse gas methane) can help wipe away your remaining carbon footprint. Here's how:

  1. Total up offset opportunities. Remember, the more emissions you cut via your own conservation efforts, the fewer offsets you’ll have to buy. You can start small, say, by purchasing offsets for air travel to France or your son's Bar Mitzvah. Or you may choose to offset all major emissions in your life, including electricity, driving, air conditioning, holidays, and more.
  2. Tally your emissions. There are numerous online carbon calculators (most also sell offsets and many are listed below). While some only focus on emissions from a single source, like air travel, others let you calculate emissions from several areas. Note: results may vary from site to site because calculation methodologies differ.
  3. Shop for a reputable offset provider. Although some groups have developed offset standards to help consumers locate quality providers or are in the process of doing so, all offset programs are not created equal). One of the most comprehensive and widely endorsed is the Gold Standard, an international consortium of groups, which certifies offset projects that follow strict criteria and are verified by independent third parties. Another is the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS), developed by a group of companies in the emissions trading industry and organizations such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Also see the Consumer’s Guide to Retail Carbon Offset Providers for a look at how different providers stack up.
  4. Buy what you need. Once you size up your emissions footprint, you can purchase the correct number of offsets. The price (typically $5 to $20 per ton of emissions offset) varies by organization and which green projects they support. It pays to shop around.

Find it! Carbon offset programs

Dozens of nonprofit organizations, airlines, travel companies, and other groups (including a few search engines) feature offset programs—which vary widely—so it can be hard to settle on just one. Here are some Gold Standard and other reputable carbon offset programs to consider. For even more carbon offset vendors, visit the David Suzuki Foundation.

Buying carbon offsets helps you go green because…

  • The fees you pay help fund CO2-reducing green projects.

Americans emit an average of 6.6 tons of greenhouse gases each year.[1] Homes are responsible for a huge chunk—about 21 percent of CO2 emissions in the US. Most of these emissions are related to using electricity (which is typically generated via the burning of fossil fuels) to light, heat, cool, and power appliances.

In addition, fossil fuel-intensive transportation, including driving a car or flying, contribute significantly. Jet travel, for instance, accounts for approximately 7 percent of worldwide carbon emissions.[2] Motor transportation contributes even more—about one-third of US CO2 emissions.[3] Together, American cars, trucks, SUVs, and minivans are responsible for more than 300 million tons of carbon emissions—an amount equivalent to the emissions generated by a 50,000 mile-long coal train.[4]

Many organizations and companies offer carbon offsets, or credits, that allow consumers to essentially negate their emissions from driving, flying, heating their homes, or any other activity that emits greenhouse gases by “investing” in CO2-cutting projects, such as wind farms and solar energy ventures. In the last few years, the US offset market has grown from virtually nothing to an estimated $100 million industry.[5]

Controversies

Carbon offsets are increasingly popular among the green-minded. Critics, though, charge that offset quality can vary significantly. The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which regulates advertising claims, began hearings in 2008 to investigate where offset funds actually go. The concern is that some claims may overstate the eco-benefits of offsets.

For instance, opponents contend that some projects, such as tree planting efforts, may not be worth the $5 to $20 paid per ton of carbon offset because investing in forest protection doesn’t help reduce dependency on fossil fuels the way, for example, renewable energy projects do. Also, the idea of "neutralizing" your carbon emissions requires that offset programs be "additional", meaning they should fund only those ventures that wouldn't otherwise be funded—something that many offset programs don't make clear.

Additionally, a number of programs aren’t monitored for quality by a third-party. And, while carbon offset programs are regulated in nations that signed the Kyoto Protocol, there is no mandatory cap in the US. That means American offset providers are free to operate without adherence to standards or quality monitoring.

Several groups around the world have developed or are in the process of developing offset standards, such as the Gold Standard and VCS, but so far none have universal acceptance, making it difficult for consumers to compare programs. According to some critics, as long as most offsets remain voluntary they won't ever significantly curb greenhouse gases—perhaps cutting only 1/10,000 of the 7 billion tons of emissions that scientists say must be cut over the next 50 years to begin halting global warming.[6]

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Comments

09/03/2008
10:31am
Rebecca

Another green transportation-related idea for weddings and events: We hired a shuttle to take our guests from the hotel to the ceremony to the reception and back again. Fewer cars on the road for the environment, and a responsible way to protect your guest's safety if you're serving alcohol.

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