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By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 10, 2007

How'd you like to buy the absence of a ton of invisible gas on your next trip?

Seems like a tough sell, but it's the latest rage in travel. About 50 companies and organizations, profit and nonprofit, have sprung up in the past couple of years to sell not something, but the absence of something -- greenhouse gases, to be exact.

The companies are providing "carbon offsets," meaning that the carbon you add to the atmosphere by traveling will be offset by a project that neutralizes carbon emissions somewhere in the world.

Here's how it works: A carbon-offset provider, using a calculator programmed to make certain assumptions, figures that a plane traveling between Washington and San Francisco will spew into the atmosphere, say, 90 tons of carbon dioxide, to choose one of many disputed estimates. If there are 180 people on that flight, then you're "responsible" for half a ton of those emissions. You pay the carbon-offset provider, say, $10, and it'll use the money to reduce the same amount of carbon somewhere else.

Of course, the gases emitted by your flight will still pollute the air. But if your $10 is used to plant trees that will remove half a ton of carbon from the air, your trip is "carbon-neutral." Alternately, perhaps the money will help build a solar energy plant or a windmill that provides electricity that otherwise would have been produced by a coal-burning plant spewing carbon into the air. Either way, your payment, hypothetically at least, will compensate for your portion of the flight's contribution to greenhouse gases responsible for global warming.

How can you know, though, if the intangible thing you've bought is real, and that your money is being well spent? And why should you voluntarily pay anything for your flight's emissions, especially since most of your seatmates probably haven't? What good is offsetting your little bit of gas in a world that is emitting 25 billion tons of CO2a year?

Below we provide some answers, in an admittedly simplistic -- but, we hope, helpful -- guide to deciding whether, and how, to open your wallet to a new and evolving market.

Why Bother?

Why buy carbon offsets? "For the same reason you take the trouble to recycle at home; it's a matter of personal responsibility," says Tom Arnold, chief environmental officer for TerraPass, a private company based in California that sells carbon offsets.

For Eric Carlson, executive director of Carbonfund.org, a Silver Spring-based nonprofit focused on reducing global warming, the answer is easy: You're helping transform a dirty-energy market to a clean-energy market, he says, and sending a powerful message to politicians who need to be convinced that people care enough about the Earth to make some sacrifice.

A small percentage of consumers could fundamentally change the market, he argues. For example, wind energy projects currently produce only half of 1 percent of U.S. electricity. If carbon-offset payments funded enough wind energy projects to double that percentage, he says, producers could reduce the price of wind energy, which currently costs at least 10 percent more than coal-produced electricity. By this thinking, a competitive price would send investors flocking to wind energy projects.

"A couple million people could do an end run around government, big coal, big oil. Imagine we woke up and had totally changed the way Wall Street invests, without any regulations, taxes, lobbying, anything," Carlson says. "The possibilities are really exciting."

Some environmentalists worry that buying carbon offsets will make people complacent. Supporters argue the opposite: They are a means of getting people to think about their impact on the Earth and perhaps inspire them to change their behavior.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company


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