Reduce Your Carbon Footprint With Carbon Credits

Footprints composed of CO2 symbols  Image #:    85429112  License type:    Royalty-free  Photographer:    Saul Gravy  Co
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Sarah Warren considers herself an "unlikely environmentalist": someone who a few years ago would only casually recycle her garbage but who now can tell you her home's carbon footprint. That happened after Warren, a psychologist in Evanston, Ill., realized how environmental degradation poses "a clear threat to the health and well-being of my children," she says. After that, Warren switched from incandescent to compact fluorescent lightbulbs, vigilantly turned off lights, installed a ceiling fan to reduce air-conditioning costs and eventually used a new tool to green her home: buying carbon offsets after measuring the extent of her home's carbon footprint.

A growing number of eco-conscious homeowners are doing the same, as part of an effort to not only help the environment but also reduce energy use and utility bills. Supporters of carbon offsets (also called carbon credits) say that it is an easy way for individuals to make a difference on a small scale in reducing global warming, although some critics argue that offsets don't always accomplish that goal.

Carbon offsets can be confusing, like the heated debate over climate change itself. So here's what you need to know if you are considering joining the offset movement:
All of our homes affect the environment by requiring fuel and electricity for heat and light. In fact, the average American home emits around 20,000 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year. The first step in buying carbon offsets is to determine your home's carbon footprint by plugging some details--like where you live and your energy costs--into a online carbon calculator, to see where you stand on the eco-scale.

Is your house sucking up too much in the fossil fuel department? There are websites to offer you tips on what to do, from the latest in weather stripping to insulation made of recycled denim. If you take these steps and still need to reduce more, then you can buy a carbon credit.

Carbon credits are basically a financial instrument aimed at lowering CO2 emissions. When you buy one, it's like making a donation that goes to fund a carbon-reduction project, such as a wind farm or reforestation. In that way your money--in the form of the offset--helps reduce emissions somewhere else to compensate for your own carbon impact, be it from your home or an airplane trip.

Of course, you don't have to change a lightbulb or reduce anything: one can just buy enough credits to ease one's carbon footprint (and guilt). But Pierre Bull, a research analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy organization, suggests that credits should be part of a broader energy reduction plan. "The best approach is to do as much as you can based on personal behavior and usage and then use offsets as a last resort," he says.

Keep these points in mind as you navigate the new world of carbon offsets:

1. Use a carbon calculator from a well-known and reliable organization or government agency, like the EPA, or one that is based on EPA data, such as

2. Think about what carbon offset project you want to support; probably one that reflects a particular environmental concern or personal interest (they can range from biofuels to dairy farms that reduce methane gas emissions).

3. You can aim for a "carbon neutral" or "carbon zero" home, but experts say smaller reductions will also make a difference.

4. Make sure the projects you select are certified and verified by third-party organizations that monitor standards and results, which should be found on the website.

For her part, Warren bought credits for wind and solar projects from the nonprofit Bonneville Environmental Foundation that cost "a few hundred dollars" to offset carbon emissions from her home as well as other activities, like travel. In so doing, she has helped reduce her home's energy use and utility bill, she says, and also "live in alignment with my values and show my children how to respect the natural world and its limitations."
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