Care to Join the Debate–Carbon Offsets

I had planned to write about this subject last year but it just kept being put on the back burner. As a birder I became aware of the carbon I was releasing into the air every time I got into my truck to go birding or to chase some rarity that showed up. That was what my “green” year was all about. To lower my carbon footprint. But birding isn’t my only carbon releasing activity. How you heat or cool your home, what you eat, how you get to work, how you vacation, etc. are carbon related activities. There are many more and you can’t avoid them. You can reduce them but in the end we are all carbon polluters. Even Dorian Anderson who’s currently biking across the U.S. in search of birds has a carbon footprint. It’s just so much less then all of us.

So what are carbon offsets. The following quote is from grist.org’s, Ask Umbra“.

The basic idea behind carbon offsets, for those unfamiliar with the term, is that you spend money to make up for putting carbon into the atmosphere. Perhaps you have put this carbon into the atmosphere by flying to Ontario to see your great aunt, or perhaps you are a business that cranks out a lot of pollution. You have your reasons. Anyhow, the money you spend “offsets” your carbon belching by supporting projects that produce clean energy or reduce carbon in other ways.”

The first article I came upon last year that concerned carbon offsets was actually about birders. It was titled, “How Birders Can Conserve Habitat with Carbon Offset Donations for Birding Travel“. You can find the article here.

“It’s a good thing when birding festivals and events find ways to give back to the community. This year, the Midwest Birding Symposium (MBS, headquartered in Lakeside, Ohio) will again raise funds through a voluntary Carbon Offset Birding Project (COBP) where travelers donate money in proportion to the carbon emissions they use from birding and birding travel.”

This experimental COBP project was launched a few year ago by motivated birders who wanted to do something to offset the environmental impact of their birding travel. A number of these folks were involved with the Midwest Birding Symposium,  thus MBS became the first carbon-offset program specifically tailored to birders for the benefit of birds at a bird-watching event.”

The link in the paragraph above will take you to a PDF describing COBP. A quote from that PDF states:

“Some folks have actually suggested that birding is bad for the birds! Here’s the reasoning: as we pursue our interest, enjoying birds, and even racing around Ohio (or the region or the country) building our bird lists, we are also burning fossil fuels—lots of them—that add to greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists believe that these greenhouse gasses are long-lasting, global, and have already affected bird habitats and migratory patterns negatively.”

Average per-person gas emissions in the United States are 27 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year. (World per-person averages are closer to 5.5 tons.) To understand the magnitude of that number, one ton of CO2 may be emitted when an American:

_ Travels 2,000 miles in an airplane
_ Drives 1,350 miles in an SUV
_ Drives 1,900 miles in a mid-sized car
_ Runs an average household for two months
_ Has a computer on for 10,600 hours (442 days).”

 
 
 The Union of Concerned Scientists website states that:
 
 “1 gallon of gas = 24 pounds of global warming emissions.
Every gallon of gas burned emits 24 pounds of carbon dioxide and other global-warming gases into the atmosphere. About 5 pounds of that come from the extraction of petroleum and the production and delivery of the fuel. But the great bulk of heat-trapping emissions—more than 19 pounds per gallon—comes right out of a car’s tailpipe.
Pollution adds up fast. Each year, the average car sends 6 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere—about three times the vehicle’s weight.”
 
 

Many birders don’t feel that they are part of the problem. Obviously they are wrong. But the subject of carbon offsets could apply to anyone or anything. A business traveler, a popular rock band, a world event like the Olypics, or just those concerned about climate change and might feel a little guilty about their carbon emissions.

One of the best websites that I’ve found to explain the ins and outs of carbon offsets is “HowStuffWorks“. It might be a little old and some of their links don’t work but it’s good with the basics. Even at their site there is a sign of some misgivings about carbon offsets.

“Some environmentalists doubt the validity and effectiveness of carbon offsets. Because the commercial carbon trade is an emerging market, it’s difficult to judge the quality of offset providers and projects. Trees don’t always live a full life, sequestration projects (for the long-term containment of emissions) sometimes fail and offset companies occasionally deceive their customers. And voluntary offsets can easily become an excuse to overindulge and not feel guilty about it.”

I have found several companies that offer carbon offsets. I don’t endorse any of them but it’s interesting to see what they are offering. One of these companies is Pacific Carbon Trust. Another is Terrapass. And another is Carbonfund.org. Most of these companies offer a carbon footprint calculator which you might want to use just to see yours. This carbon footprint on The Nature Conservancy’s website is real simple and you don’t need to know much about yourself. I scored a 22 for a two person household. Average in the U.S. is 53 and the rest of the world is 11. It’s a fundraiser for The Nature Conservancy but that bring up a good point.

ASK UMBRA (see above) has this to say, “First, the best thing we can do when it comes to emissions is reduce our impact as much as possible… Second, if you have money to donate, consider investing directly in renewable energy projects or environmental groups near you that are doing great things. A carbon offset is, at its core, a donation to a good cause. Why not eliminate the middle-person and support projects you feel confident about?”  More on this idea in my next post.

Finally this article on the Christian Science Monitor’s website is a very good in-depth article about the mostly bad pitfalls of carbon offsets. It ends with these statements:

“David Hales, who has represented the US in international environmental negotiations and now is president of College of the Atlantic in Bar HarborMaine, headed a 2008 effort of college presidents to draw up guidelines for offset purchases by colleges and universities. None of the certifications met the standards of his group.

“The market is dominated by junk,” Mr. Hales says. At his own college, he set students to the project of picking offsets to counteract emissions, and they found the effort a quagmire.

“It almost takes a full-time staff to determine exactly what you are getting. Even then, there is a range of uncertainties,” Hales says. “It’s truly a ‘buyer beware’ situation.”

 

 


 

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