That's what I've been asking myself lately....Carbon offsets seem to be all the rage but even though I've read about them here and there, I realized I still didn't really understand what they're all about. So I've done a little research to sort it out.
In a nutshell, carbon offsets are a way to compensate for the greenhouse gases that you personally create (through driving your car, running appliances, air travel etc..) by paying to support a business that reduces greenhouse gases through planting trees or generating renewable energy. It's essentially a donation but it's more than that...because you're tying it directly to your own lifestyle and your impact on global warming. Some people strive to lead a carbon neutral lifestyle by offsetting all the carbon emissions that they personally produce. Others might just offset a special event like a vacation or a wedding.
One way to do it is to purchase a Renewable Energy Credit, or REC for windpower from your local utility. Obviously this does not involve setting up a wind turbine that directly feeds into your home. Rather you are supporting the windpower that the utility produces and you can claim 'credit' for offsetting the electricity that you use. It's a little wishy-washy to try to make a direct link like that but you get to feel good about it none the less.
Other options include supporting the development of new renewable energy sources, reforestation projects or land-use and agriculture-based projects. You can even support "remooable" energy projects like methane abatement, which basically turns cow manure into electricity!
One thing for sure, the business of carbon offsets is a complicated one. There are many providers to choose from, both non-profit and for profit. And the movement is not without its critics. Some people scoff at the idea of "checkbook environmentalism" without a commensurate lifestyle change and there is concern that some of these carbon cutting projects are poorly run or not legit.
If you really want to dive deep, you can read the 44 page Consumer's Guide to Retail Carbon Offset Providers from Clean Air-Cool Planet. Otherwise you can check out some of the other resources I found:
- BeGreen: Use their easy online calculator to figure out your carbon footprint and purchase credits to offset your lifestyle.
- NativeEnergy: An easy to navigate website with a wealth of information including detailed descriptions of specific projects they fund. Lifestyle and Travel calculators help you figure out your offset amount.
- Green-e: An independent certification program for renewable energy projects. Choose your energy type (wind, solar, hydro etc..) and they provide links to certified suppliers - so you can be sure your money is going to a legitimate project.
- Go Zero: Tack a 'green tag' onto your flight or vacation package purchased through Travelocity. This Conservation Fund program is responsible for planting trees to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
We're taking a family trip to the Pacific NW this summer, so I looked up the price of a carbon offset for the airline trip from Minneapolis to Seatlle. On the NativeEnergy site the offset price was $24 per person for the roundtrip. At BeGreen it was only $14. Clearly there is some variation in pricing and types of projects but overall I think the idea is a worthy one. I'll be doing something to offset the trip - just not sure exactly what yet.
Has anyone else out there bought carbon offsets before? I'd love to find out what your experience was!