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Offsetting Without Tears

Friends Center ProjectCarbon offsetting, in which individuals, households and corporations "offset the carbon emissions [their] lifestyle generates by funding projects that reduce carbon emissions" (Consumer Reports, March 2008), have become increasingly popular lately. Offsetting seems to offer an accessible way to reduce emissions beyond what is possible by individual conservation alone. In principle, it is a helpful idea. In practice, there are traps for the unwary.

The system seems easy and painless. A family or corporation calculates its carbon footprint (the emissions it generates annually). This is theoretically easy to do using one of the many online carbon footprint calculators. Most calculators—which are in effect fundraising devices—assign a dollar amount per ton to carbon emissions. The user donates this amount to the organization which provided the calculator, and the money goes to projects that are supposed to lower the worlds's overall emissions, usually low-emissions power projects, conservation projects, or reforestation projects.

The difficulties with this approach, although they do not necessarily invalidate the idea of offsetting, should lead us to approach it with care:

Despite the difficulties, carbon offsetting has in fact raised capital for low-emissions energy and conservation projects—and reforestation, whether or not it sequesters carbon as its advocates claim, is desirable in itself for many reasons. The problem with offsetting is not the concept itself. It is finding the best way to implement it.

Here is one approach that seems reasonable for a small household. First, calculate the household carbon footprint using a good online calculator. The suggested donation will vary with the organization providing the calculator, and in any case, one household may be able to give less, another more. The simplest way to proceed is to use the suggested donation as guideline. One can only do what is within one's power to do.

The keys to this approach are

Our family's particular project is the Friends Center's green retrofit in Philadelphia. In the United States, buildings are the third largest source of greenhouse gases after the industrial and transport sectors (EPA figures), which makes green building projects particularly suitable for offsets. The Friends Center was originally a more or less typical energy-intensive 1970s building. It differs from most buildings of its era only in having windows that open, thanks to pressure on the architects from the organizations which built it. Remaking it will save a great deal on carbon emissions even though it is a small building. Supporting a project like this will not, by itself, save the planet. But it is a start.