Wanna buy some carbon credits?

The Painful Stats:
An average domestic U.S. flight releases more than 1,700 lbs of greenhouse gases per passenger, and our cars unload four to 10 tons of carbon dioxide, on average, into the atmosphere every year.

As part of my continued quest to ride the sustainable Unicycle lifestyle, I set out to reduce the greenhouse effect of my air and car travel. Fortunately, the business world has created some market-friendly ways to offset our carbonaceous consumption through Carbon Credits, or Offsets.

After researching a few resources, I chose to offset my air travel through Cleanairpass.com, a Canadian company based in Ontario. Just to spread it around a little, I chose TerraPass, a well-accredited US company, to offset my car travel. More about that later. First, some basics about the credits and offsets game. The basic idea here is that participating polluters who reduce their greenhouse emissions below target levels can sell the remaining unused leftovers as credits. These are actually traded on the Chicago Climate Exchange, and purchased by those who use them to help meet their own targets. Thus, permission to pollute becomes a market commodity. And companies that can beat their emission targets have a reason to do so.

There are also a growing number of groups offering “carbon offsets”. Examples include Cleanairpass, TerraPass, Climate CareCarbon FundSustainable Travel International,CO2Balance and Future Forests. Individuals pay these organizations to undertake a carbon dioxide mitigation effort in an amount sufficient to offset the CO2 produced by a given activity. Offsets fund projects like wind and solar power, reforestation or carbon capture programs.

So where did I net out? Through Cleanairpass.com, I submitted the details for my flights – one return trip to New York City, and a family Vacation for three to Puerto Vallarta. I was sent an Excel spreadsheet showing the carbon emissions, and indicating the amount I should pay to offset these exhalations. The grand total was $35.18 CDN, including taxes. Less than the cost of in-flight cocktails, really. So where did my 35 bucks go? According to the info sheet I received by e-mail with my receipt, “Your cleanairpass benefits the environment by supporting an emissions reduction program located in Washington State that is reducing a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions by capturing and destroying methane that is produced on a large agricultural farm.” Round up those cow farts, Clem.

For the carbon spewed by my mini SUV, I entered my vehicle’s relevant stats on the TerraPass website, along with a yearly driving distance estimate. According to their calculations my Honda Element creates 9,997 lbs (4500 kg) of CO2 yearly. That’s more than it weighs. The cost to wipe this sooty stain from my conscience: a mere $49.95 US for one year. According to their ‘verified’ site, 33% of this total goes to Renewable Energy Certificates, (putting clean power into the grid), while 67% goes to Carbon Credit Offsets, registered and retired on the Chicago Climate Exchange. They also promised to send me a nifty window sticker, which I guess will give me bragging rights at the next treehugger rally.

Of course these initiatives are not without critics. Friends of the Earth, an environmental pressure group, said “There are strong concerns over the environmental credibility of many of the credits and the contribution of the projects to sustainable development. Money for an offset scheme should only be funnelled to projects that would not have happened unless the offset money was provided.” 

So what’s next? I must say, I still feel pretty bad every time I get on an airplane. And I’m starting to consider tinting my windshield so people won’t see me drive. But these Carbon Offsets at least contribute to a growing social and economic experiment where individual choices can add up to large-scale change. I think that deserves some credit.



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