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Offsetting Our Carbon – Sunday column, January 2, 2011

Posted on Jan 3, 2011

“You’ll be pleased to know that the emissions for your air travel to this conference have been offset by the purchase of carbon credits,” announced the Executive Director.

The delegate next to me leaned over.

“What language is she speaking?” he whispered.

“Futura mondiale,” I said. “The language of the world’s future.” Actually I didn’t say that, but I really wish I had.

Carbon offsetting is a scheme that allows you to cancel out your personal greenhouse gas emissions by paying someone else to reduce their own emissions. It’s like an inverted bank account. If driving my car 1000 kilometers puts a tonne of carbon dioxide into the air, for instance, I can neutralize the damage by paying someone to plant enough trees to draw a tonne of C02 back out of the atmosphere.

Since the earth has a single atmosphere, it doesn’t matter whether the trees are planted in New Germany, New Mexico or New Guinea. It doesn’t even matter whether the transaction involves the same greenhouse gases. Methane is 23 times more damaging than C02, for instance, so one tonne of methane reduction is as good as 23 tonnes of C02 reduction.

The best way to minimize atmospheric greenhouse gases, of course, is not to emit them. More and more people are making a serious attempt to live responsibly – consuming less, sharing more, reducing waste, cutting emissions. Knowing that your electricity is supplied by coal-fired generators, you buy compact flourescent bulbs, and turn off unneeded lights. You insulate and seal your house, turn down the thermostat and educate yourself about solar panels and geothermal heating. You support car-pooling, car-sharing, hybrid cars and public transit.

And you really shy away from flying – already an unpleasant business, what with US officials claiming the right to grope your crotch while X-ray machines count the steel ribs in your corset. And flying is particularly nasty from a climate-change viewpoint.

The airlines contend that C02 emissions per passenger mile travelled are about comparable to those from a private car – but other factors make jet emissions in the stratosphere two to four times more damaging than their C02 levels alone. Furthermore, a single round-trip from the east coast to the west can generate as many passenger miles as six months’ average driving. In addition, air travel is growing by 5% annually. George Monbiot concludes that “flying dwarfs any other impact a single person can exert.”

No practical solution to the problem is in sight, although $200 oil would certainly have an impact. Meanwhile, if you have urgent business in faraway places, you can hardly avoid flying. Which brings us back to carbon offsetting.

What you spend on offsets goes into projects like wind turbines, solar installations, energy-efficiency initiatives and small hydro, or into carbon-capture initiatives like reforestation. You can offset your home heating and your driving as well as your air travel. By combining lifestyle changes with offsets, you can achieve “carbon neutrality,” taking as much carbon out of the atmosphere as you are putting in.

The market for carbon offsets has been described by one participant as being “a bit like the Wild West” — ebullient, unregulated, with all kinds of prospectors staking large claims. A satisfactory offset has several crucial features. For starters, the carbon-reduction claims should be verified by independent sources, should be based on real environmental gains, shouldn’t represent something that the seller was going to do anyway, and should be sold only once.

Analyzing the quality of offsets thus becomes a monumental task. Happily, it’s been done for us by the David Suzuki Foundation and the Pembina Institute. The two organizations also participated in creating a standard for offsets called The Gold Standard. You can download their guide, Purchasing Carbon Offsets, from the Suzuki Foundation web site. Thats how I found Planetair, a Montreal non-profit that sells Gold Standard offsets, mainly for projects in the developing world. Punch in the details of your flight on their handy little calculator, and the site calculates the offsets, which generally seem to add about 10-15% to the ticket price.

A perfect solution? No. But a genuine step forward – and the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

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