conservation biology Family Planning Greenhouse gases Hope

Offset Your Carbon Impact with PopOffsets





Below, underlined, is the preview of the version of the article that I sent out by email in July.

Gail and I will be sailing across the Atlantic to France–in the stratosphere–the day that this essay appears in the Durango (Colorado) Herald. We love to travel and we have a good reason for this trip. I have wondered for years why conservation biologists don’t pay more attention to human population: after all, if human numbers were smaller, biodiversity wouldn’t be so threatened. It’s kind of like a dentist ignoring candy!
Roger Martin (of the British organization Population Matters) and I will be hosting a roundtable to listen to conservation biologists at the International Congress of Conservation Biologists in Montpellier, France. We want to learn what their attitudes are toward human population, and why they don’t pay the issue more attention. Maybe I’ll have more information about this in another essay!
Thanks for reading.

PopOffsets picture handing BCPs


We all benefit from using fossil fuels. As a consequence we all cause carbon emissions, and thus contribute to climate change. Is it possible to compensate for our greenhouse gas emissions?

“Yes and no” is the answer. Once CO2 is in the atmosphere it is almost impossible to take it out. Fortunately there are some actions we can take to decrease our impact.

The most important action is to decrease emissions in the first place. In many cases decreasing emissions has the added benefit of also saving money. Thus there are at least two advantages to walking instead of driving, turning off lights you don’t need and—well, you know the litany.

I’m retired and love to travel. How can I make up for the trip to the south of France (largely for business) this summer? Offsets offer a partial solution.

I am writing about voluntary programs where a person voluntarily pays to compensate for his carbon emissions. The PopOffsets website explains this concept well:

“Offsetting is a way of compensating for our residual “footprint”: the level we won’t or cannot reasonably expect to go below. The idea is to pay for projects – which would not otherwise be implemented – which take emissions out of the system to compensate for what we put into it. In other words if an individual or organisation has done what it reasonably can to reduce its emissions (insulation, green energy, efficiency measures, waste reduction, etc), it can compensate for the remainder by investing in projects designed to reduce the amount released to the atmosphere and/or to capture what is being released. Typical projects have traditionally ranged from hydro-electric, solar and wind energy schemes to more efficient cooking stoves to (re)forestation to biofuels to Carbon Capture & Storage (Sequestration).”

There are many different organizations that will help you calculate your carbon emissions, then figure the amount of money that would offset those emissions. One of them is American Forests. Trees absorb CO2 as they grow as well as providing many other benefits. This organization’s website has a carbon calculator to help estimate your carbon footprint, and thus the number of trees that need to be planted to offset that footprint. It also makes it easy to make a donation to so they can plant those trees for you.

Where does human population fit into this? If there are fewer emitters, then there will be fewer emissions. Family planning programs are a good way to slow emissions and thereby slow climate change. Indeed, sophisticated calculations suggest that voluntary family planning programs can make a significant step toward limiting greenhouse gas emissions. A team headed by Brian O’Neill has shown “…that slowing population growth could provide 16–29% of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change.”

My column shares its name with an organization in England. The British Population Matters has recognized the advantages of making family planning available to more people. In order to put this noble idea into action they started a unique offset program, PopOffsets. It collects money to support family planning programs. Remember World Vasectomy Day, in which men all over the world get snipped? it received funding from PopOffsets. So has a “backpack nurse” who provides family planning services to people in rural Kenya, and WINGS, a Guatemalan organization that provides reproductive healthcare. PopOffsets has also supported a Population, Health, Environment program in Ethiopia with contraceptive supplies. More surprising is that they also made a grant to an agency close to home—the Utah Population and Environment Coalition.

The goal of PopOffsets is “less carbon, smaller families”. They are apparently unique in the world, and would like to see similar organizations in other countries.

Back to my trip to France. It is roughly 5400 miles from Bayfield to Montpellier, France where my conference will be held. Doubling that for a round trip, we can round up to 11,000 miles, most of which will be flying. The PopOffsets website says that 230 grams of CO2 are emitted for every passenger mile or about 2 ½ tons for this trip. They estimate that $15 spent on family planning will offset one ton of CO2, thus my payment to them should be $37.50. I made a donation for more than that amount knowing that it will support good projects.

For the future of the planet it is important to minimize your carbon footprint. What you cannot get rid of you can offset with PopOffsets!

© Richard Grossman MD, 2015

biodiversity conservation biology

Mourn for Martha

“You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone”
Joni Mitchell

Although the Ebola epidemic is terrible, there is an invisible epidemic that might end up being even worse for humanity. We depend on the great web of life, but paradoxically we are constantly weakening that web.
We receive services from many different biological species and communities. Plants remove carbon dioxide and harmful chemicals, purifying the air we breathe and liberating oxygen. Various invertebrate animals cleanse both salt and fresh water. Bees pollinate a quarter of our crops. And the list goes on.
Unfortunately, we humans are causing species of animals and plants to go extinct at a terrible rate. There have been five prior eras of mass extinction—the most recent was 65 million years ago when a huge meteor plunged to Earth. The resulting explosion threw up dust that altered the climate for centuries, and ended most of then current life—including dinosaurs.
Scientists estimate that the current rate of extinction of species is about 1000 times normal. The causes of this epidemic include loss of habitat, climate change, introduction of exotic species and pollution. What do these have in common? they are all human-caused. The more people there are, and the more each of us consumes, the more species we unwittingly kill off.
The dodo is a classic example. It was a flightless bird that lived on the island of Mauritius. In the 17th century sailors stopped there to replenish food and water supplies. The dodo had no fear of humans and was an easy target—sailors could walk right up and club them for fresh meat. The last of these innocent animals was slaughtered before 1700.
Closer to home, the passenger pigeon cluttered the skies of North America in the 19th century. Their annual migrations were estimated to encompass several billion birds! They were easy prey for hunters; sometimes people brought them down simply by throwing sticks or rocks in the air. It was thought that the supply of this delicious meat would never end.
You probably already know the end of this story. The last passenger pigeon, “Martha”, died in the Cincinnati Zoo 100 years ago this month. Attempts to find a mate for Martha had been unsuccessful. Causes of the extinction were overhunting and loss of habitat, since much of the North American forest was being cut down and plowed.
We now know that, even if an amorous male had been found, the species still wouldn’t have been saved. Some species have complex social systems and require large numbers to survive. Passenger pigeons were gregarious—they needed huge flocks to breed successfully. Furthermore, from a genetic standpoint, diversity is important to prevent lethal mutations from gaining sway,
With only a small number of individuals the genetic code is likely to have enough errors that the species will inbreed and die out. We are incredibly fortunate that two other species of birds, the California condor and the whooping crane, were saved from extinction before their numbers reached the critical figure. There were just 23 whoopers alive in 1941 when protection and a captive breeding program saved the tallest of all American birds. Luckily, this small number of individuals must have had adequate genetic diversity to keep the species healthy, because now there are about 600 of these magnificent birds.
Why not splice some of Martha’s genetic material into the DNA of a related pigeon so the passenger pigeon species can be resurrected? Theoretically, “de-extinction” might be possible using modern genetics, but the concept has problems. Remember they need a huge flock to be sustainable. The major problem, however, is that de-extinction is a diversion from saving species from extermination in the first place. What we really need is the humility to share resources with other species.
To commemorate the centennial of Martha’s final flight, the Smithsonian has established the multimedia program “Once There Were Billions”. Striking statues of passenger pigeons, part of The Lost Bird Project (, will be on display in Washington.
Bees are in trouble. Colony Collapse Disorder has devastated almost a third of honeybee colonies worldwide. Many native bees species are also being ravaged. What is causing this collapse? research points to climate change (some flowers bloom before the insects are ready), harmful mites and a virus. In addition, omnipresent neonicotinoid insecticides are probably killing bees.
Biological diversity is essential for human survival, yet, unthinkingly, we are rapidly destroying species in unprecedented numbers. We should safeguard the web of life, for our own species’ sake.
© Richard Grossman MD, 2014