Less immoral carbon offset scheme for a reluctant traveler
October 14, 2010 6:51 AM   Subscribe

Dear mefites, I've got an unavoidable carbon-heavy trip ahead of me, and am feeling terribly guilty about it. I'm against carbon offsetting for companies on the whole, and am wary about it on the individual level. People excusing polluting by saying "hey, I'm planting trees" is silly. However, three of us can't avoid taking three flights and a ferry trip next year, and would like to put some money towards a project that will reduce more carbon than we are responsible for. So, what to do?

Using this flight emission calculator, for three people, I've worked out that we're going to be responsible for 3,500kg of CO2. The IPCC recommends multiplying that figure by 2.7 (to take account of high altitude) and you get 9,500kg. London to New York is 3,465 miles, so at 0.43kg per passenger mile for three people, that's roughly 4,500kg of carbon.

Total, 14 tonnes. Doesn't include other pollutants, like sewage or oily water, nor other gasses released into the atmosphere. So, lets round this figure up to 20 tonnes of CO2.

20 tonnes for three people. Now what?

Does anyone know of small-scale schemes that hope to reduce carbon use quickly (say, in the developing world, where my money will go further), that I can trust won't be another scam, like planting trees that will mature well after the proposed date of climate armageddon?

With eco love to you all...

PS, lets not waste time debating whether carbon offsetting is immoral :)
posted by ingridbroad to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
What kind of car (if any) do you drive? If you are already devoted bicyclists, then my recommendation is superfluous, but if you drive a car with an internal combustion engine, you can get an electric car and make a significant difference in terms of your carbon footprint. It is often argued that even if a car runs on electricity, that electricity is still generated somewhere, and the generating station may burn coal, which is true. But environmental problems require action on more than one front. If the cars are electric, we can also work on getting environmentally benign forms of power generation and then we will have real progress. As long as we are burning gasoline in our cars, we are not moving in the right direction. Another objection is that electric cars are expensive, however, your question does state that you want to "put some money towards a project that will reduce more carbon than we are responsible for". So if you have money to spend, I recommend buying an electric car.
posted by grizzled at 7:07 AM on October 14, 2010

Well, if you do decide to buy another car, don't forget to take into account the amount of carbon offsetting you'll need to balance the manufacturing process.
posted by amtho at 7:20 AM on October 14, 2010

Why are you traveling?

Could you invest in making whatever you are traveling for local so that you won't need to travel again? Could you inest in some sort of telecommunication so you won't need to travel as much?
posted by WeekendJen at 7:58 AM on October 14, 2010

Response by poster: We're already fairly green at home, with an energy efficient boiler, bicycles, hybrid car, low energy bulbs, insulation, double glazing and so on. My husband and I have even worked with major charities and non-profits tackling climate change since the 80s, but these are all large-scale projects. That's why I'd like to find somewhere that I can have a significant, quantifiable effect, albeit for not a fortune. Solar powered wells? Methane capturing farms? How does one help capture 20 tonnes of carbon efficiently?
posted by ingridbroad at 7:59 AM on October 14, 2010

Response by poster: I'd love to not travel at all. I just can't avoid this trip. That might sound unreasonable, but we are working towards a charitable end that requires our presence, and we feel it's less moral to avoid it than to do it (with flights). But we still want to make up for the travel part...
posted by ingridbroad at 8:00 AM on October 14, 2010

The best way to spend this money is to support a lobbying group that is pushing for tougher environmental regulations e.g. a carbon tax. You won't get the quantifiable impact, but that's where the biggest leverage is.

If you do want to go for the quantifiable impact, I know a local company called Offsetters that takes a less objectionable approach than tree-planting. Their approach is to fund the extra capital costs in certain projects in order to enable them to use more expensive but less carbon-intensive energy sources. E.g. a building gets a ground source heat pump they would not otherwise be able to afford; total emissions go down.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:11 AM on October 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

I don't know if anyone else has different experiences of this kind of thing (and you might find they're "silly") as well, but after a quick search: Carbon Earth, Greatest Planet, and Climate Care (which seems to charge only £8 to offset each ton of carbon you use up...thanks JP Morgan). So, for 20 tonnes, that's only £160! :)
posted by omnigut at 8:25 AM on October 14, 2010

BTW, I'm doing a bunch of traveling next year as well. If you do find a good solution to this, mefi mail me - I'd be interested to see whether we could make a greater difference by pooling our money...
posted by omnigut at 8:27 AM on October 14, 2010

Why so down on the carbon offsetting?

Planting trees can be stupid, but the projects sponsored by TerraPass are fully transparent, and are much, much more than planting a few trees. They have had significant measurable impact.
posted by kryptonik at 8:27 AM on October 14, 2010

You could look into Native Energy, where your dollars go toward funding renewable energy sources. (Windmills, methane projects.)
posted by brina at 8:34 AM on October 14, 2010

If I might answer that last one for OP, carbon offsetting often gives large organizations the excuse to keep polluting while investing in the future. Also, when on a grand scale, these things become hugely difficult to measure. For example, trees take a long time to grow, wind turbines take a lot of energy to build and instal, plus energy produced by them is often lost on an unstable electric grid, carbon recapture methods for power plants is famously difficult to monitor, and this isn't taking into account bribes, politics and all the other things that could skew a result.

That said, after quickly checking out TerraPass' website, it does seem that not only are their carbon gains fairly quick, but are also well researched. But their wind turbine project – have they deducted the carbon it took to build the turbines for their yearly totals?
posted by omnigut at 8:40 AM on October 14, 2010


That's what I like about TerraPass. Their projects have quick returns, and they tend to be focused on activities that are going to produce nasty emissions any way you cut it (common investments over the years have been methane recapture in farming, which is great since methane is far nastier than carbon dioxide).

I'm honestly not sure about the windmill project calculations. They're big about transparency, though, so I bet you can dig and find out. Given the level of detail by which they calculate offsets for flights and the reasoning that went into it, my guess is that they've taken it into account. Their blog also has been down on solar and hybrids at times due to the environmentally unfriendly cost of manufacturing, which is to say that they're much more pragmatic than feel-goody, another indicator that they probably took the emissions from manufacturing into account somehow.
posted by kryptonik at 6:36 AM on October 15, 2010

« Older Finish my engineering degree? Or switch to I.T.?   |   Sports bar near union station (NYC) Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.