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.