Resource Library/Carbon Offsets

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Carbon Offsets -- A Quick Guide to Get You Started

Carbon offsets raise many questions. Which are legitimate? Which are bogus? Are they a helpful tool to combat global climate change or a easy way out that assuages our guilt and allows us to avoid changing our behavior patterns? Well, it depends on how they're used. Read this short summary to see how best to use carbon offsets.

What are carbon offsets?

Carbon offsets may be difficult to quantify, but the idea is simple. You balance your own carbon dioxide emissions by contributing money to a project that reduces an equivalent amount of CO2 somewhere else. Let's say you cause 2 tons of CO2 to be emitted because of air travel. You can balance that out by supporting a project that is reducing greenhouse gas emissions -- a solar energy project in India, a farmer capturing greenhouse gases from animal waste and turning it into energy, a wind turbine on an American farm. The more CO2 you want to offset, the higher the price. Since greenhouse gases emitted anywhere in the world affect global climate change, it doesn't matter where the reductions occur.

How are carbon offsets best used?

Carbon offsets should be the last, not the first, thing we do. We should reduce our own energy use as much as we can, purchase energy efficient products whenever possible, then think about using carbon offsets to neutralize the effect of our energy use. This way, they are part of an attempt to live more gently on the Earth, not an excuse to waste energy.

Where to start: Here are some good options

NStar now offers NStar Green, an opportunity for customers for have 50% or 100% of their electrical use support wind power (one wind farm in upstate New York, and later another being developed in Maine). See for more information or to sign up. Or call 800 592-2000.

Other local initiatives: The Massachusetts Climate Action Network recently chose two carbon offset programs to offset the electricity used at their annual convention. Using tax-deductible contributions, LiveCooler installs energy-efficient lightbulbs in low income homes in Massachusetts, thus reducing CO2 emissions and lowering their electric bills. Contributors can offset flights, automobile travel, or home energy use. New England Wind Fund supports the development of wind turbines in New England. Contributions are matched and put into a energy fund for the donor's town.

The Flying Green Consumer Handout from Tufts University recommends various carbon offsets. These allow you to calculate how much CO2 is emitted by a certain flight you've taken. One that they mention, MyClimate (Sustainable Travel International) allows you to decide what kind of activity you want to offset -- driving, flying, home energy, etc. Native Energy , an often-recommended organization, concentrates on farmer-owned projects in the U.S.

The Environmental Defense Fund's Carbon Offset List is also helpful. It is a list of projects the organization has researched and approved. They spell out their selection criteria and list the independent experts who are on the review committee. They also explain the concept of carbon offsets and how to judge them.

You will notice that some offsets are cheaper than others per ton of CO2 emitted. This is not an exact science!