Saturday, March 31, 2007

What Do You Think of Carbon Offsets?

I did some research recently on how to use carbon offsets for my flight to the Nonprofit Technology Conference in Washington DC. I haven't taken a cross-country flight since the whole "carbon offset" thing started to gain momentum, so this was an opportunity to understand what it is all about.

Ed Begley used TerraPass on Living with Ed (which I love), so I started there. To calculate how much carbon dioxide my flight will produce, I entered where I was flying to and from (Oakland to Washington DC) and discovered that the round trip flight is 4,801 miles that produces "personal emissions" equaling 1,872 lbs of CO2.

To offset my flight, they suggested that I purchase the TerraPass Puddle Jumper for $9.95 that will balance out 2500 lbs of CO2 by investing my money into a project that reduces CO2 emissions, like a wind power, biomass or an industrial efficiency project.

You can buy carbon offsets for your car and home too. Based on our zip code, type of energy we use and how much energy we used (based on our gas and electric bill), it calculated that our home energy use emits 13,604 lbs of carbon dioxide per year, which is equivalent to burning 695 gallons of gasoline.
We can balance one year of emissions with a Home TerraPass for $69.86, but if we wash our clothes in cold water, turn off lights when we're not using them, replace three light bulbs with CFLs (compact fluorescents), and unplug chargers (i.e. cell phone, laptop, iPod) when we're not using them, we can reduce our emissions to 11,784 lbs of carbon dioxide per year, which can be offset for $59.88.

To ensure that they really are investing my money in CO2 reducing projects, TerraPass is audited by the
Center for Resource Solutions (CRS), "the leading certification agency in the renewable energy market."

I bought the TerraPass Puddle Jumper for my trip, and am still thinking about the Home TerraPass.

A day or so after I'd purchased my offset, Co-op America's e-newsletter had a whole article with suggestions for how to choose a carbon offset company:
1. Reduce your impact first.
2. Look for offsets that support specific projects.
3. Look for offsets that will cause carbon reductions that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
4. Look for offsets whose GHG (greenhouse gas) reductions will happen on a clear timeframe.
5. Look for offset providers that ensure your offset can’t be re-sold.
6. Look for offset providers that are independently verified.
7. Avoid offsets based on tree-planting projects.
8. Avoid offsets that purchase “allowances” on a climate exchange.
You can read the full article here. Some of the carbon offsetting companies that they recommend are The Climate Trust, MyClimate, NativeEnergy and TerraPass. EcoBusinessLinks also has a survey of carbon offset providers you can check out.

I'm willing to pay $10 for a flight and maybe even $70 for our home's yearly energy use, but a part of me wonders how much difference it will make. What do you think? Do you think carbon offsetting will make a difference?

Photo Credit: airplane_aa by Jackie.


  1. Thanks for this post. I've been looking for someone to just explain in plain English what these "carbon offsets" were all about!

  2. I've always thought they were very mysterious myself. I think it is the name, "carbon offset." Makes it sound very complicated and scientific.

  3. pondered alternative phrases...

    carbon requitement
    carbon redress
    carbon balancing
    carbon compensation
    carbon correction

  4. Britt,
    Congrats on taking the initiative to walk (fly in this case) the talk. I did some research recently on offsets and realized that there are some very lucrative business models that are profiteering on the practice. I am in Canada and chose to 'purchase' units from the Pembina Institute, a nonprofit doing stellar research and projects in the environmental sphere.

  5. Anonymous8:01 AM

    Britt - excellent explanation. I view the Terra Pass and other carbon offsets as bandaids and awareness generators for the real issue - getting rid of the CO2 at the source. The best way to do that is through market pressure and standards(politics is too slow and too limited by country lines).

    Market pressure is already making companies become CO2 free and socially responsible. Note that it is happening inbetween elections and happening fast. You can't be "green" enough, but greenwashed marketing is everywhere.

    Standards elminate greenwash and level the corporate playing field and give the machines specs to match. (you can find explanations of on

    Hopefully in 5-10 years, these standards will do the heavy lifting needed to bring corporations into line and the consumer will be left with only green choices and therefore no need for a Terra Pass.

    Until then, VISA has a "Greencard" that automatically calculates and buys the COs offsets you'll need for any purchase. Guilt-free and calculation-free buying will help speed the transition.

  6. Anonymous2:41 AM

    Not all tree-based offsets are a bad thing. Please check us out at where you will see we are trying hard to do this in an honest and transparent way.
    At a time when we have dangerously high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere it would be madness for us to forego the immense absorptive capabilities that trees provide.

  7. Thanks for your post. I agree with decreasing our own impact first...after I recently pondered the mysteries of carbon offsets, I heard from Kevin Smith of Carbon Trade Watch. He seeks to debunk currently marketed carbon offsets, and I tend to agree. Quite difficult to understand how each specific impact is actually being offset. I feel
    much better, for now, about my own small and personal actions. When I do something like shut off my computer/printer at the power strip each night, I have an "in the moment" awareness of my impact.

  8. You're right, Ru. There is nothing bad about planting trees, for sure!

  9. The thing that worries me - is my money going toward a new renewable energy project, or just toward some methane project on a landfill that has been there for years, making that company some extra cash? I don't care what motivation a company has for doing something green, as long as it's doing good. NativeEnergy offsets only go towards investments in NEW renewable projects so i offset with them.

  10. Anonymous4:11 AM

    Hi Britt- I am the guy who was mentioned in the coop america article about offsetting. Here is a copy of the letter I just sent them.

    I find it outrageous that they manipulated the facts to claim that I use offsets. In reality, I believe offsetting is a dangerous and deceptive practice. Instead, I have pledged never to own a car or fly again, and believe that my life will be much better for it.

    You can read about my plane free trip to Britain here:



    Dear Coop America Editor,

    While I appreciate the publicity about my plane free journey across the Atlantic in your article about the high carbon emissions from air travel, I am not happy that you used my story to promote carbon offsetting.

    I consider the selling of carbon offsets as deceptive, if not more so than the selling of indulgences by the church. Carbon offset projects do not undo the damage that flying and driving cause. A ton of carbon saved now is far more important to climate stability than one saved in the future. In addition, many trees planted to "offset" carbon will die in their lifetimes because of the effects of climate change.

    Carbon offsetting, though often conducted by well-meaning individuals, is a deceptive practice and counterproductive to the urgent necessity to immediately and drastically cut our fossil fuel burning. To pretend otherwise simply allows destructive and unnecessary travel behaviour to continue by giving the false impression that you can be "carbon neutral" and pollute at the same time. This is simply not the case.

    We need to do all we can to immediately cut our carbon emissions at the source- that means driving and flying a whole lot less. Period. That means cycling and walking for shorter journeys, taking the train or the bus instead of flying, and avoiding long-distance travel wherever possible in favor of local getaways. It also means buying locally grown or produced goods wherever possible.

    Here in the UK, carbon offsetting has largely been discredited, through such social critics as George Monbiot, who writes a column for the Guardian.


    In addition, websites such as have brought attention to the absurdity of carbon offsetting by declaring that you can "offset" your infidelities by paying someone else to stay faithful.

    I urge you to cease your support for carbon offset programs, and instead focus your publicity on energy efficiency, and encouraging behavior change that results in less fossil fuels being burned.

    Not much money to be made from that though is there?


    Joshua Hart

  11. Anonymous7:27 AM

    The scepticism about rouge used carbon salesmen is appropriate. However, it is clear that quality carbon offsets can be beneficial to the planet particularly if the offsets are for greenhouse emissions that have no optional greenhouse reduction strategy. A case in point is air travel. If you do travel by air then it is appropriate to offset the emissions. For this reason Uncook carbon offset have been designed as a quality product with highly additional projects administered through the respected Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme. See for more information.

  12. Anonymous9:52 PM

    I'm considering erecting a windmill on my property to generate electricity for my home. It will cost about $15,000 but will generate about half of our annual electricity use. If I were willing to let others buy into my project, to satisfy their craving for carbon offsets, would anyone be interested?


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