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

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