It's the depressing truth about travel these days: It isn't cheap -- at least not when it comes to carbon in the environment. That super deal your friend found when she flew to and from Paris last summer still contributed at least a couple of tonnes of CO2. Those multiple business jaunts you were required to make several times last year and the daily commutes to the office downtown weren't great for the environment, either. Even if you commuted by bus, rail or carpool, the numbers can stack up.
In the past, few of us would have thought about calculating how much we cost the planet in greenhouse gases from our daily lives. But more and more people are reflecting on the impact they have on the environment, and how they can feasibly and ethically take steps to mitigate emissions with what is called voluntary carbon offsets.
If you're like me, you've already embarked on the first step that experts say is critical to reducing carbon emissions. A self-check review helps you determine how you can lower your own personal "carbon debt" when it comes to the environment. You'll likely find many ways of creating more sustainable habits, or more efficient ways to live. Those options, experts say, can range from increasing your recycling at home and work, to eating less meat and more sustainably produced foods.
Still, hard as you try, you'll likely find many actions just can't be deleted from daily life -- like working in an office where you don't directly control energy expenditures, making dinner for the family, or driving to your sister's wedding in Oregon.
Voluntary carbon offsets help the environment and help others
That's where carbon offsets (also known as carbon credits) come in. In many consumers' minds, they help balance, or offset that carbon contribution we unwittingly emit; a commitment that helps reduce our personal impact at a time when global warming is an increasing concern.
But the truth is, that isn't the only reason they are a good buy. Sure, a certified carbon credit program is a financial donation to the environment, and we get to enjoy the peace of mind of knowing we've offset part of the environmental impact of our frenetic lifestyles. But the true benefit of a verified program is how it does so.
Third-party verification is critical
One of the criticisms that is occasionally heard about carbon credit programs for individuals (often called the "voluntary credit marketplace") is that they are unregulated by government oversight, and when it comes to state and federal agencies mandating how and what kind of services they offer, that's true.
But carbon credit advocates will argue they are regulated by something better: an impartial third-person review process that verifies the authenticity, accuracy and feasibility of the project you have invested in. And if done correctly, a process that doesn't stop throughout the life of the project.
"While voluntary offset programs should not be seen as a substitute for comprehensive government regulations to reduce greenhouse gases, they are a step in the right direction, and an opportunity to demonstrate leadership on climate change," advises the David Suzuki Foundation, a Canadian organization that works toward solutions for many of today's environmental challenges.
Many carbon credit companies are also B-certified corporations, meaning they not only subject the projects they manage to third-party oversight (that includes follow-up validation as the project progresses) but verification that they meet a rigorous threshold of social, ethical and environmental standards -- and aren't afraid to document it.
Transparency counts in carbon offset projects
Today, the benchmark of successful carbon credit projects is transparency: being able to directly see where your money is going through documentation, in-depth validations and financial disclosures.
But that's also a matter of personal conviction, the Natural Resources Defense Council says. Some investors have very specific ideas of what they wish (and don't wish) to invest in and take the time to really learn about what they may be endorsing. A good carbon credit organization will help you attain that information and make the right decision.
"Many [companies] will allow you to direct your money to specific projects or away from others. You may, for example, prefer not to invest in a factory farm, even if the money is earmarked for methane capture. Or you may wish to look for programs that offer benefits beyond carbon reduction," says the NRDC, like supporting community development in underserved areas that also reduces carbon emissions.
A sign of a good carbon offset provider is one that is always striving to keep pace with today's opportunities for consumers to go "carbon neutral." They offer innovative projects and thought-provoking solutions for bettering the planet and a small sector of its population.
Products can range from small scale wind farms that both power and provide jobs in impoverished regions to protecting forests and the flora and fauna that depend on them to a community biogas project that turns "poo into power."
Organizations like Cool Effect also offer package subscriptions for individuals who don't want to choose one specific project. Instead they can invest a monthly amount to be allocated across all projects as needed. Or, they can choose one project and receive regular updates as to where their money went and how the project is growing.
Voluntary carbon offset investors are important
Carbon offset investors are becoming a vital part of what creates environmental innovation, says the David Suzuki Foundation, which points out that groups are finding their own creative way to offset carbon production. Athletes, musicians and other celebrities now factor in carbon offsetting as a way to counter their own travel impact on the environment (even though it often doesn't take into consideration that the tens of thousands of fans traveling to such events will have a cumulatively greater contribution to greenhouse gas emissions than they will). Many of those public events that do realize this provide ways for attendees to purchase verified carbon offsets.
Credit offset experts say that often, the biggest obstacle to investing in carbon credits is lack of knowledge about how to do so, and the real statistics when it comes to their global and environmental benefits. But the growing numbers of both companies and individuals who see carbon offsets as a trustworthy way to incentivize carbon reducing projects are helping to educate others about the way they can help mitigate their own impacts on Mother Earth and offset providers like Cool Effect are providing the transparency that buyers need to feel comfortable that they are truly having an impact.
Image credit: Cool Effect
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.