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.
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.
Executives at Native Energy, a carbon offset provider based in Vermont that has been around since 2000, noticed an uptick in interest beginning in 2006, just after the release of the documentary heard 'round the warming world: Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth."
"We saw an increase in Web traffic and phone calls and orders that began since 'Inconvenient Truth' went into theaters," said Billy Connelly, a marketing director. "Once people recognized that this issue is real, that's when people started to pay more attention and get more engaged in the solutions."
Native Energy is rated by Cool Air Clean Planet as one of the U.S.'s best providers of carbon offsets.
Connelly, like many people I talked to, said that carbon offsets should be a last resort of sorts in fighting global warming. First, consumers should determine their carbon footprint, see where they're using the most energy and begin using energy more efficiently.
"The last step would be to offset CO2 in order to live your life or do your job," he said. "When you offset your emissions, make sure you're doing it with a reputable provider so you know that your offset purchase actually makes a difference."
As the industry grows, regulation remains nonexistent, according to Dale Bryk, a senior attorney with the National Resources Defense Council who leads the group's state climate policy work.
"It's really started to take off in the last year or so. … There's no standard. So it's a buyer beware market," Bryk said. "The only way to know is to ask questions. What are you doing with that money? What are you paying for when you buy offsets?"
The Tufts Climate Initiative at Tufts University recommends that consumers ask four basic questions when buying carbon credits:
Native Energy believes that it fulfills all of these requirements. When you buy an offset from Native Energy, you're funding American-based renewable energy projects in at-risk communities, many in rural areas.
"[These groups] have potentially really good projects. They just need some help to get from point A to point B and then they get to a renewable energy project and customers can say, 'I helped build that,'" Connelly said. "Which answers the question, 'Is the offset real? Is the project real?' It doesn't get more real than that."
Other experts say that while voluntary carbon offsets are a nice idea in theory, federally and state-mandated corporate offset programs, like the cap-and-trade program currently in effect in the European Union, will make the biggest difference in the fight against global warming.
"Cap and trade, regulation — from an environmental perspective, that's going to stop the problem" of global warming, says the NRDC attorney Dale Bryk. "It's nice to have voluntary programs. … I think it's heartening that there's a demand to do something."
For Gloria Estela Gonzalez's family, that demand is strong. But amid all the composting, the recycling and the energy efficiency, there are still luxuries that the family doesn't want to surrender.
"We're foodies. Buying locally is hard for us," she said. "We like to have our nice wines from the other side of the world."
The family will pay for that wine with carbon offsets.