Buy a Carbon Offset, Save the Planet?

Just a year ago, Gloria Estela Gonzalez, a professor in Middlebury, Vt., and her husband and two sons thought they were living the greenest lifestyle possible: They made compost, they drove a Prius, they recycled.

But when Gonzalez's then 10-year-old son Matias Van Order Gonazalez got upset after reading about global warming in a children's almanac, the family decided to do even more: Buy carbon credits.

"We have been very interested in the environment for the longest time. … We have also been very conscious of not wasting stuff," said Gonzalez, 45, who teaches Spanish. "Last year the thing that really triggered us to get more active was our son. … He's really the one who got us a lot more active in becoming carbon-neutral."

Since then, the Van Orden Gonzalez clan is among a growing number of individuals who are buying carbon credits to offset their own carbon output, which scientists point to as the primary factor in global warming. But as this burgeoning green consumer culture emerges, experts are wary of a carbon offset industry that is trendy, yet – at least for now – completely unregulated.

Inconvenient (Carbon Offset) Truth?

Carbon offsets work like this: Individuals can calculate the carbon emitted from their homes, their houses and their cars on a myriad of online carbon calculators. According to experts, the average American household emits about 12 tons of carbon per house and six tons of carbon per car annually; every cross-country plane trip emits about two tons of carbon per person per trip.

Consumers can then purchase an offset from carbon-offset companies for typically between $5 and $20 per ton to cover their output. For example, to cover the carbon cost of your home, car and several plane trips in a given year, you can finance the cost of the number of trees it takes to absorb that carbon. The money from the credits is used for not only trees but for a variety of renewable energy projects such as wind farms and processing cow manure.

What the money buys, however, has become a source of contention for environmentalists.

"People should do whatever they can in their own lives to change their carbon footprint. … All offsets are not created equally," says the Sierra Club's Josh Dorner. "If people turn to offsets, they should look for things that are verifiable. … Investing in renewable energy — that's going to make a difference."

While the Sierra Club supports any environmental effort, according to Dorner, one of the most popular uses for carbon credits – reforesting developing countries – is questionable.

"I think there are more questions [in planting trees] than where you see a direct investment," Dorner said. "If you plant a tree and it gets cut down, then that's not doing anyone any good."

Although there aren't any statistics available about the sales of personal carbon offsets, the green writing is on the wall. As companies that offer carbon offsets become more prominent, corporate giants – Fox and Google among them – are making their own efforts to go "carbon neutral" with offsets.

Similarly, airlines are offering passengers the ability to pay a fee to offset the carbon output of a flight. In 2007, both Delta and Virgin Atlantic launched their own carbon offset programs.

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