What is a carbon offset and how do I get one?

smoke stackEarlier this week I wrote about a program which lets you give gift a clean carbon slate to your graduate by purchasing carbon offsets. After sharing this intriguing if not practical gift with some friends and relatives I found that not everyone knew what a carbon offset is. Rather than repeat myself numerous times I will share with all of you what carbon offsetting is.

One carbon offset is equal to one metric ton of carbon emissions or greenhouse gas. These offsets can be used by companies to get around carbon caps imposed on them by environmental regulations. Citizens like you and me however, can make use of carbon offsetting to live a "carbon neutral" life. These types of carbon offsetting programs allow individuals to purchase carbon offsetting from a range of companies in an effort to mitigate their impact on the environment. Before you can begin to lead a "carbon neutral" lifestyle you need to calculate your carbon footprint. You can use an online carbon footprint calculator or if you live in the EU you can even track your footprint on your cell phone.

I found that my estimated footprint is just under 18 tons of carbon emissions, which is below our national average. In order to offset my carbon footprint I, as an individual on the voluntary market, have a plethora of choices for carbon offsetting in a number of price ranges. These choices include donating $274 to a verified clean energy fund or planting 25 trees in the UK for $596. Other sources of carbon offsetting also exist at lower prices, ranging from $5.50 to $13 per ton, which make for a more reasonable payoff to offset my carbon usage.Another way to purchase carbon offsets may be through your power company. For example AEP provides customers the ability to purchase renewable energy certificates to get power from a certified renewable source such as a wind farm. Tobias Buckell who also blogs at WalletPop currently purchases these credits which run at $.70 in order to gain renewable power. According to AEP the average house would need to spend $7 to equal their home usage. Unfortunately the program expires at the end of 2008 so this doesn't seem like a long term option.

The carbon offset industry has had its share of controversy over the years so before making a purchase of carbon credits, be sure to do your research. In the past people have been scammed into purchasing carbon credits which were not really linked to any carbon market or which were sold multiple times. Another criticism some people have of the program is that it is used as a way of buying your way out of the guilt associated with a high carbon footprint.

While I could see myself participating in a renewable energy certificate program if it was offered by my power company I don't feel compelled to plant 25 trees in another country to offset my entire carbon footprint. It seems like taking steps to simply reduce my footprint such as biking more, reducing energy use and buying locally are more effective at reducing the carbon released worldwide than trying to remove pollution from the market of corporations.

Do you buy carbon offsets? What motivates you to buy them and where do you purchase the offsets from?
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