This year as part of my New Year’s resolution, I’m trying something a little different: paying into a carbon offset program. Because let’s face it, diet and exercise haven’t taken hold, despite my best efforts the past 20+ years.
If you haven’t heard the term before, carbon offsets are basically calculating your carbon footprint—how much fossil fuel you burn each year to keep your house heated, your car running, ship deliveries to your house and/or groceries to your local store, etc. etc.—translating that into how much carbon dioxide gets released into the atmosphere as a result (in pounds or tonnes), then converting that into a dollar figure, which you can then invest in initiatives meant to reduce or counteract the accumulation of CO2. In this way, you can “pay back” some (or all) of the carbon you’ve emitted.
There are hundreds if not thousands of carbon offset initiatives out there. I found a good list at The Gold Standard, a “carbon market” that independently verifies carbon offset projects. Here you can buy “credits” that represent the removal of 1 tonne of carbon emissions. Options include investments in clean water projects in Asia and Africa, wind farms in India, and forestry/tree planting groups in Central America. There are plenty of options closer to home, as well. For each tonne of carbon you wish to offset, the prices can range from $12 to $19 per tonne.
Calculating how much carbon you emit can be a tricky proposition. It’s probably unlikely that you’ll be able to account for, say, how much methane is being released on a cattle ranch in Texas because of the number of hamburgers you ate this year, or how much jet fuel was burned to bring you your Amazon purchases (unless you happen to know the location of every warehouse your items shipped from and how long they were on the delivery truck). So you may have to do some estimating.
In broad strokes, the average American produces over 20 metric tonnes of carbon each year. Compare that to a global average of 4 tonnes. This can vary based on your personal choices, how big your house is, the model year of the car you drive, your diet, how much you travel, what zip code you live in, and many other factors.
To calculate your household’s carbon footprint, find an online carbon calculator like the one at Terrapass. It’s not overly comprehensive but will give you a number based on the vehicle you drive, any public transportation you take, the amount you travel by air, and how you heat your home. I checked mine out and it came out to about 18 metric tonnes annually, so, not great, and as the website tells me is “equivalent to planting 466 urban trees.” Whew! The site then offered me a price of roughly $200 to offset my emissions. This simplistic estimate is consistent with a few other calculators I’ve checked, and since I don’t have enough time in my schedule this year to plant 466 urban trees, this offset seems like a good option to support those who can.
If you get a result in pounds, simply divide the number of pounds by 2205 to get your equivalent in metric tonnes (the more globally accepted standard).
Every calculator is slightly different and there are many different ways that carbon prices can be factored, so don’t take this as gospel. You’ll have to do your own research. Some sites (such as the Environmental Defense Fund) say that the total social cost of a tonne of carbon is $50 or more, when factoring in the risk of extreme weather events as a result of climate change, the spread of disease, greater global food insecurity, and so forth, which would make my annual price offset more like $900. That makes the $200 estimate seem like a good deal.
I look at as a charitable donation, where I can invest in a socially and environmentally responsible program of my choosing. I figure if I have enough money to spend on the environmentally irresponsible luxuries I enjoy, like a house heated to above 70 degrees in the winter, extra electricity to keep my Christmas lights on, a ham and turkey for my holiday dinner, not to mention all of those Amazon boxes that our Christmas gifts arrived in during the Year of the Plague, I can afford to pay back some of those carbon emissions and give some financial support to those who don’t have access to those same luxuries. And this year, perhaps more than ever before, it’s become achingly clear how many people do not.
On that note, I’ll sign off on 2020 in the hope that the year to come will bring some relief to those who are suffering and show us the path forward to a brighter future for all. From our family to yours, best wishes for a healthy and happy 2021.