Buying Our Way Out of Eco-Purgatory?

I hate to admit it, but I think carbon offsetting (see my previous post, “What Is Carbon Offsetting?”) is a little like buying a papal indulgence, a system used in the early days of the Roman Catholic Church.

An indulgence works thus: A person commits a sin, later repents of it, and if he or she does good work to atone for the misdeed, is granted an indulgence that helps save his or her soul from Purgatory—or worse.

I confess: I flew to Carmel, Calif., to visit the Carmel Mission.

I confess: I flew to Carmel, Calif., to visit the Carmel Mission.

Sometimes wealthy people could purchase indulgences instead of doing good deeds—a policy that funded some of Europe’s great cathedrals.

Here’s how I imagine the conversation at Our Lady of Environmental Transgressions:

Me: “Bless me, Father, for I flew to Guatemala for a yoga retreat, and yes, I am sorry that I contributed to global warming by burning a lot of fossil fuel.”

Eco-Priest: “Do you repent of this sin?”

Me: “I do. Except I had a really great time…”

Eco-Priest: “Then say a Hail Gaia and purchase your carbon offsets. Only through these acts of penitence—and by helping other people use less fossil fuel—will you maintain the ecological balance and atone for your eco-sin.”

Me: “Thank you, Father, for not condemning me to eternal labor in the Coal-Mine Pit of Hell.”

Eco-Priest: “I now pronounce you eco-absolved.”

Environmental Atonement

Yes, I exaggerate about the “eco-guilt,” yet it’s time for us all to take more responsibility for our personal impact on the environment. Frankly, most of us can’t build a solar system for an off-the-grid community—or often for our own houses—so carbon-offsetting is one way to personally approach the global warming issue.

Also, I don’t advocating completely eschewing travel, especially to other countries, because I believe cross-cultural understanding will help unite people around the world in a joint effort to preserve and protect natural places.

I’m interested in hearing how other people feel.

  • Do you suffer from eco-guilt?
  • Do you think carbon offsetting is a good way to address the problem of environmental destruction?
  • How about other suggestions for ways individuals to reduce their carbon footprint?

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S. I just read a great piece on The Ecologist that discusses the ins and outs of carbon offset schemes. Read “Carbon Offsetting: Forgive My Carbon Sin?” by Jules Peck.

What Does a Carbon Offset Buy?

I love to travel, but every time I get on a plane or go on an extensive road tour, I think of how much carbon dioxide is produced. CO2 is one of the major greenhouse gases that contributes to global warming and climate change.

So, it’s great to have the opportunity to compensate for the environmental damage I’m creating when I travel by buying carbon-offsets.

Carbon-offset programs help “displace” electricity from fossil fuels and reduce other greenhouse gas emissions on my behalf, making up for the CO2 emissions I can’t avoid.

What am I actually “buying” when I give some of my money to a carbon-offset program? Essentially, I’m helping finance new clean- and renewable-energy projects worldwide.

Walking doesn't contribute to climate change, but it does help body warming.

Walking doesn’t contribute to climate change, but it does create body warming.

For instance, a handful of MyClimate flight tickets can finance a solar water-heating system in rural Africa that eliminates the need to burn virgin-forest wood and import diesel fuel.

This Sustainable Travel International program has high standards: Programs must verify that they reduce greenhouse-gas emissions according to international Kyoto and World Wildlife Federation Gold Standards. This sort of accountability insures that my carbon-offset dollars are doing all they can to help limit the world’s fossil fuel use.

Another dependable program is Native Energy. When you buy carbon offsets from this company, your money helps create sustainable economic benefits for Native Americans, Alaska Native villages and other U.S. communities. The company also helps America’s family farmers compete with agribusiness.

Greener with Forests

Other carbon-offset focus on planting trees. The Trees for Travel program plants trees in developing countries to offset carbon dioxide we create when using air or ground transportation. The organization reports that one tree can absorb 50 pounds of CO2 every year—about 1 ton of CO2 over an estimated 40-year lifespan.

Tree-planting programs help solve deforestation and land-erosion problems, and trees pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere (replacing it with oxygen!).

However, tree-planting doesn’t actually reduce global fossil-fuel use the way installing a clean, renewable energy system in a village would. For that reason, I favor carbon-offset programs that build solar, wind or hydropower systems.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

What Is Carbon Offsetting?

You’ve probably heard a lot about carbon offsetting lately, especially in connection with travel to large events such as the Democratic National Convention, the Super Bowl or the Olympics.

Planes, trains, and automobiles contribute heavily to global warming. In fact, travel accounts for about one-third of worldwide climate-damaging carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and air travel is one of the fastest growing contributors to global warming. A roundtrip flight from New York to Los Angeles covers a distance of 4,938 miles and emits 1,940 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2) per passenger.

What’s a conscientious travel lover to do? First, we can minimize unnecessary travel or visit places closer to home.

Nazca boobies, Gal?pagos Islands

Nazca boobies, Galápagos Islands

If, however, you’ve got your heart set on an overseas vacation, you can offset the climate damage created during your airplane flight to Paris or Machu Picchu by financially investing in renewable-energy projects that reduce carbon emissions, a process called “carbon offsetting.”

The first time I tried carbon offsetting was on my trip to the Galápagos Islands. I logged onto the Sustainable Travel International’s website where its carbon offset program calculated how much carbon dioxide I created (2.04 tons!) on my roundtrip flight from Denver to Ecuador to the Pacific islands. It cost just $37 to assuage my eco-guilt.

“The basis of carbon offsetting is that on the one hand, you produce carbon dioxide; on the other, you reduce,” says Peter Krahenbuhl, co-founder of Sustainable Travel International, a nonprofit that promotes responsible tourism.

Marine iguanas, Gal?pagos Islands

Marine iguanas, Galápagos Islands

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S. Read more about what carbon offsets buy in my next post.

One World, 194 Passports

As I was cooking up a pot of Moroccan Garbanzo Bean soup for tonight’s book club potluck, I tuned into National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation“ talk show. Today, it became “Talk of the World” as a forum between hosts Neal Conan and Ted Koppel and callers from around the globe. The topic? The election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States.

As I listened, I kept having to pause my vegetable chopping to blink back tears. All the callers—from South African Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu to a man from Provence—expressed their joy over Obama’s election. Tutu disparaged the Bush administration and said Obama was renewing the world’s hope. Human rights activists Natan Sharansky (Israeli) and Hanan Ashrawi (Palestinian) thought perhaps Obama could bring peace to their region.

The Obama love-fest was certainly heart-warming. (And I can only imagine how intimidating it is to our president-elect to have the entire planet pinning its hopes on him!)

I’m happy that as an American I’ll be able to hold my head higher when I travel the world. After 2004, when the country re-elected Bush, I felt especially ashamed and even a little fearful of going abroad.

That year before the election I spent three weeks traveling in Ireland. The people seem very pro-American—possibly because so many of the Irish immigrated to the United States during the famine years. When I met and talked to them they were gracious, even when the conversation turned to politics. When I explained that I abhorred Bush, though, the atmosphere brightened and people visibly relaxed.

A Thin Line Between Love & Hate

There are certainly countries where the governments are extremely anti-American, but I believe that most people in other countries are less hateful toward Americans than we realize. They may find some of us spoiled, oblivious and insensitive, but only a handful wish us, as a nation, real harm.

That said, however, the last eight years have made our country look bad in the world’s eyes. Now, perhaps, Americans can redeem ourselves. It will be interesting to see if we feel safer when we perceive that the world likes us again. (And now that the fear-mongering heads of state are exiting.)

  • Have you, dear reader, ever changed itineraries because you feared traveling in a place that might be hostile to Americans?
  • Have you ever pretended to be a different nationality, say, Canadian?
  • Have you encountered either good will or bad will in foreign countries?
  • Do you think you’ll feel safer as an international traveler once Obama is in the White House?

Now back to my Moroccan-influenced soup.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor