Want to stop contributing to global warming every time you drive the car or turn on the computer? It may not be as hard as you think.
A growing number of Mainers and other Americans are buying their way to more "carbon neutral" lives. Less than $150 can cancel out the pollution produced to power the lights and appliances in a typical Maine home for one year. Another $75 a year might cover the climate damage done by the average car.
Businesses have been doing it for years, but only the most savvy environmentalists have known that regular folks can, too. The idea is basically this: Pay to reduce a certain amount of carbon dioxide pollution anywhere in the world and neutralize the damage caused by your house, your furnace, your car or even your family vacation.
While the carbon offset market is growing fast, it also is unregulated, and some purchases may do more to ease a guilty conscience than actually fight global warming. And some fear the system may even make matters worse by leading people to believe they can simply pay to make climate change go away. Carbon dioxide from fossil fuels is the primary target because it is the pollutant most responsible for trapping heat around the earth.
There's no way to know how many Americans or Mainers are buying carbon offsets to help slow global warming, but the concept is getting a lot of exposure.
The band Coldplay and Ford Motor Co. are among those promoting offsets. Expedia.com, an online travel agency, asks customers if they want to "buy back" the carbon dioxide emissions from their airline flights. In Maine, they're used by college campuses and businesses, such as ski resorts that offset the emissions produced to operate their chair lifts. Even the lights on Portland's Christmas tree are considered carbon neutral.
Now individuals are buying into offsets. "They are making their way into the mainstream of things you do for the environment," said Leslie Taisey of North Yarmouth.
Taisey works for Maine Interfaith Power and Light in Brunswick and was busy last week mailing out carbon offset certificates, called Green Tags, in time for Christmas. The nonprofit got about 85 orders for tax-deductible Green Tags last Christmas, and interest has grown between 30 percent and 40 percent each year, Taisey said.
"It's not uncommon now to get someone to send in their money and say, 'Here's six people on my gift list, please send them Green Tags saying here's to a more renewable future."'
Van Tingley of Yarmouth said he became an instant fan when he heard about offsets a few years ago. Now the retired management consultant tries to spread the word in his church.
Tingley, who used to work in the coal-mining industry, said he bought $200 worth of Green Tags from Maine Interfaith Power and Light to offset his house -- $20 for each 1,000 kilowatt hours he uses.
"It just gets more pounds per year of CO2 out of the atmosphere than any other way I can think to spend $20," he said.
The idea is simple enough. Tingley pays for someone else to take the same amount of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere that he put in to light his house. Because global warming is indeed a global problem, it doesn't matter where the emissions are reduced.
It's the market system that carries out that trade that can get really complicated.
The first step is to figure out, or guess, how much carbon dioxide you are releasing by driving your car or lighting your home. An average car produces about 6 tons of carbon dioxide a year, and a typical Maine home contributes 3 tons.
If, for example, you want to offset an average car, you would buy 6 tons worth of carbon offsets from a retailer -- usually a nonprofit group or company that promotes renewable energy. The purchase is often tax-deductible. The retailer typically passes the money to an organization that finances projects such as wind farms.
By helping create the wind farm or keep it operating, your money would put renewable energy into the electricity pool and reduce the amount of power put into the pool by power plants that burn coal, oil or gas. If it works the way it's supposed to, the carbon dioxide that those plants do not produce cancels out the carbon dioxide released by your car.
Meanwhile, you get a certificate that says you have kept 6 tons of carbon dioxide from entering the Earth's atmosphere. Your car gets to wear a "carbon neutral" bumper sticker. Bob Sheppard of Kittery used offsets to make his family's recent vacation more "carbon neutral."
Sheppard, his wife and two children flew to Tuscon, Ariz., then rented an RV for three weeks. As deputy director of Clean Air-Cool Planet, a nonprofit in Portsmouth, N.H., that helps businesses, colleges and communities reduce their carbon footprints, Sheppard knew the vacation would carry an environmental cost.
The family calculated the carbon dioxide produced by the plane flight and the 12-mpg RV and bought $85 worth of carbon offsets. "It's a good feeling to know you're helping to deal with climate change," Sheppard said.
The system is far from foolproof, however. The market is unregulated, and there is no single standard for what is a legitimate offset. "It can be a real challenge for consumers," said Laura Kosloff, vice president of Trexler Climate + Energy Service Inc., a Portland, Ore.-based consultant in the offset market.
There are more than 30 organizations offering to sell offsets on the Internet, with a wide range of prices and carbon-saving solutions. It can be tricky to sort out whether they will truly offset emissions the way customers expect. "They don't in all cases," Kosloff said.
A for-profit company using offsets to finance windmills could sell the carbon reduction from the same windmill over and over, racking up profits but not reducing carbon dioxide. Or the money could go into a wind farm that was going to be built anyway, even without the money from offsets.
In either example, the unwitting buyers don't really get what they pay for. A legitimate offset is retired and never resold, and it has to provide funding that is truly needed for a wind farm to operate and replace fossil fuels.
Kosloff's company wrote a report released by Clean Air-Cool Planet last week that serves as one of the first consumer guides to the offset market. There is talk of government regulation or the creation of a single standard to give the market more credibility. In the meantime, experts said, consumers can look for offsets that are certified by one of several independent auditing organizations. Interfaith Power and Light, for example, relies on established companies that are certified by a group called the Center for Resource Solutions.
Even if consumers get what they pay for, however, some critics say the system will do more harm than good for the Earth. London-based New Internationalist magazine published an edition in July calling offset markets around the world a big "carbon con."
"Rather than stop the flow of oil, coal and gas, the offset industry tells us that we can continue as normal," editor Adam Ma'anit wrote. "Carbon offsets are at best a distraction and at worst a grandiose carbon laundering scheme."
In effect, he said, someone driving a gas-guzzling SUV will simply keep pumping out carbon dioxide, but with a clearer conscience. That doesn't worry Erika Morgan, president of Maine Energy Investment Corp., a proponent of clean energy in Brunswick.
"I think people should be taking responsibility for the decisions they make," she said. "If that makes you feel better about your Hummer, then that's great."
Offsets will show people the costs of their choices, Morgan said, and the market will gradually promote a shift to clean energy.
But it would not be fair for the planet's wealthy to simply buy offsets while the poor of the world bear the burdens of climate change, according to Anne "Andy" Burt of Edgecomb.
"I think offsets are important, but the bottom line is that somebody's got to be actually cutting back," she said. Ultimately, everyone will need to change lifestyles, she said.
Burt, who is the environmental justice coordinator for the Maine Council of Churches, has solar panels on the roof of her home and does not buy any electricity made by burning fossil fuels. She and her husband sometimes run a backup generator and drive cars. For those things, Burt buys carbon offsets.
"It's not just that some of us who can afford to are paying to have a guilt-free ride that some other people can't afford," she said. "Part of this is really about becoming mindful and taking responsibility."
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