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Offset Your Carbon Emissions
© Richard Grossman MD, 2009
We all generate greenhouse gases from our use (direct and indirect) of fossil fuels. These emissions are changing our world by altering the climate.
Every member of modern society contributes to global warming, although some much more than others. We all use fossil fuels, directly and indirectly, and their combustion releases carbon dioxide which is changing our climate.
Carbon offsets are a voluntary method, similar to a tax, to compensate for a person’s (or a business’s) portion of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Who would ever pay a voluntary tax? Millions of people do, since gambling has been likened to a voluntary tax. GOCO money from the Lottery helps fund trails and parks.
How much greenhouse gas do you produce? An estimate of the amount of carbon dioxide generated by an individual is called his carbon footprint. It is similar to the Ecological Footprint, which estimates a person’s total environmental impact. Estimate is a key word, since different calculators come up with very different results.
There are many on-line carbon footprint calculators. I like the one from The Nature Conservancy, www.nature.org/initiatives/climatechange/calculator/. It estimated that my wife and I are responsible for 57 tons of CO2 joining the atmosphere each year. This is slightly more than the average of 53 tons for a US family of two, and hugely more than the world average of just eleven tons for a couple. Our fossil fuel usage is so great because of air travel.
You can offset CO2 emissions in several ways. Decreasing greenhouse gas emissions is best, of course; this means using less fossil fuel. Using power generated without fossil fuels (renewable or “green” power) helps. Another way is to plant trees. All green plants use the sun’s energy to make cellulose from CO2. This keeps the greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere where it can cause global climate change, although this benefit only lasts as long as the tree lives.
Ideally, an individual could plant trees. It is not convenient for most people to do the actual planting, but organizations will do the work for you—at a price. American Forests is one; it has been an advocate for trees since 1875! Their website is www.americanforests.org. Everything you need is there—a climate change calculator to estimate how much CO2 you generate, and the number of trees needed to absorb this amount of greenhouse gas. I have contributed to this nonprofit in the past.
Another popular option is www.nativeenergy.com. It uses offsets to support Native American-owned renewable energy projects, including wind turbines. They also support a novel program to increase the efficiency of long-haul diesel trucks.
Another organization providing offsets is closer to home. CarbonZERO (www.carbonzerocolorado.com) is based in Durango. It was started by Andrew Klotz and Fort Lewis graduate Ian Barrowclough. Planting trees is their primary method to help people compensate for their greenhouse gas emissions. They have done this in spades, having already put almost 3500 trees in the ground. Ian points out that, over an average 70 year lifetime, the size tree that they use will absorb a ton of CO2. You can find their attractive certificates for a year’s worth of vehicle emissions at Maria’s Bookshop and Durango Coffee Company.
This year I have a different idea for offsetting our family’s carbon emissions. Three years ago we had a photovoltaic system installed on the roof of our home. It has made over three quarters of our electricity. Because coal would otherwise be the ultimate source of our electricity, this system annually averted over 3300 pounds of CO2 (as well as other pollutants) from being emitted.
I would like to see more homes in our intentional community, Heartwood Cohousing, get their electricity from the sun. We have talked of a large photovoltaic system that would provide the juice for several homes, but the cost seems prohibitive. This year I am hoping to establish, then donate to the Heartwood Renewable Energy Fund to support a large photovoltaic array at our community.
Carbon offsets are not the answer to global warming; they are only a stopgap. We have overpopulated the planet and are over-consuming fossil fuels. The people who come after us will suffer from our profligate use of resources. Offsets are a small step in the right direction.
Unless you heat with solar and only travel by bike, I encourage you to be aware of your carbon footprint. Do what you can to decrease it. What you cannot reduce, offset using one of the methods mentioned above.