Turning Down the Heat

How to help cool global warming through carbon offset programs.

By Lauren Tepper

November 2006

Every American has a skeleton in their closet. It’s called global warming and the US contributes more to this impending crisis than any other country. Former Vice President Al Gore calls it “a planetary emergency” and in his acclaimed book and documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Gore compellingly demonstrates that global warming is no longer a theory. It’s happening now, and if we don’t take action soon it may be too late.

“We are definitely in a major warming cycle,” declares Craig Ten Broeck, Director of Sustainability at Maine’s College of the Atlantic. How did we turn up the global thermostat? A protective layer of gases around the earth traps heat from the sun (just as a greenhouse does) to stabilize temperatures. Human activities spew megatons of additional heat-trapping (“greenhouse”) gases like carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, upsetting a delicate balance. Glaciers aound the world are melting at an unprecedented rate, and both severe storms and droughts have dramatically increased. Category 4 and 5 hurricanes (such as Katrina in 2005) have almost doubled in the last 30 years. Dire predictions include major floods and extinction of more than a million species of plants and animals. How can we turn down the heat?

Shift Into Climate Neutral

Greenhouse gas emissions aren’t just from factories and big businesses. Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere when we burn fossil fuels during driving, flying—even cooking. Carbon is actually one of the worst perpetrators of global warming, and the US generates over seven billion tons per year—that’s over 20 tons per American. But you don’t have to sell your car and live on a commune to become climate neutral. Carbon offset programs allow individuals or businesses to reduce the impact of their car or air travel.

We all know that lifestyle changes such as driving less and using fuel-efficient vehicles are important, but carbon offset programs help you go the extra mile. User-friendly online services help you figure out how much carbon you generate. You answer basic questions such as how many miles you fly or drive, and the calculator reveals your personal “carbon footprint.” The online tools then guide you to offset your emissions by contributing to projects that reduce an equivalent amount of carbon.

Carbon offsets can be purchased for an individual, a household, a small business, an event or a conference. We don’t think of something like study abroad as generating pollution, but at www.Livingroutes.org, students can offset the carbon emissions from their overseas flights by planting trees. The DriveNeutral site (www.driveneutral.com) allows clients to offset emissions from cars. Even a movie can become climate neutral: 100% of the emissions generated from production of An Inconvenient Truth were offset via Native Energy (www.nativeenergy.com), an organization that builds wind power projects on Native American land.

“The idea is to reduce what you can and offset what you can’t,” says Eric Carlson, Executive Director of Carbonfund.org Foundation (www.carbonfund.org). “Anyone can reduce their impact on global warming to zero for about $100 per year, tax deductible.”

How can carbon offset programs help ease global warming? Trees planted with offset funds remove carbon from the air as they grow. Renewable energy investments promote wind and solar power, edging out fossil fuel consumption. Some projects convert farm or forestry wastes into an energy source, with the double benefits of displacing fossil fuels and re-using resources that would otherwise be squandered. Other projects increase energy efficiency of businesses or residences, reducing the demand for conventional, carbon-generating power.

Empowering People

Carlson and other idealists in the emerging carbon offset business aim to curb global warming by generating momentum for economic and political changes. “As enough people drive the price of renewable energy down it will become more readily used,” Carlson explains. More people buying renewable energy means less demand for fossil fuels.

Individuals and businesses are jumping on the bandwagon. According to Ten Broeck, College of the Atlantic will purchase 100% of their energy from wind power this year, for only a nominal amount more than a conventional provider. Karri Fisher, an occupational therapist from Long Island, New York, recently became climate neutral with Native Energy. “It would be impossible to take carbon emissions out of my life, but at least I can do something that helps on a global level,” she says.

“Carbon offsetting is a foot in the door to a room full of opportunities for individuals to make a difference,” says Tom Stoddard, VP and General Counsel of Native Energy. Stoddard urges use of carbon offsets as one step in a larger effort to push for broader political and economic shifts. Other steps we can take toward a carbon neutral world include contacting legislators and joining online activist networks. A great resource can be found at www.climatecrisis.net, which offers information, links for carbon offsetting and other strategies for fighting global warming.

So put the planet on your gift list this year: Become climate neutral with a cool new way to ease global warming.

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