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Carbon Offset Conundrum

If you are reading this, you probably have already heard about carbon offsets. Chances are you have seen a car in front of you on the highway with one of those nifty little stickers proclaiming the car as “carbon neutral” courtesy of TerraPass. That might even be your car. Sorry for flashing my high beams. It was an accident.

There are many companies offering carbon offsets, all based on the concept of giving them money – the amount is based on the level of carbon dioxide emissions related to the use of ones car, electricity and home heating usage and air travel – so they can invest it in green projects elsewhere. In theory, consumers are able to reduce or eliminate their carbon footprint by helping fund these projects.

But where exactly does the money go?


According to TerraPass’s Web site, the majority of the funds they receive are invested in methane capture projects at dairy farms and landfills. The basic idea is this – let’s say you live in Amherst and drive a 1998 Saturn with a manual transmission and you drive 12,000 miles a year, generating 8,385 pounds of carbon dioxide. For a mere $53.55 a year you can offset your carbon usage by sending the money to TerraPass. You can feel justified for polluting the air in Western Massachusetts because you are helping clean the air in Outlook, Washington by funding a methane digester for cow manure at the George DeRuyter dairy farm!

Another company offering offsets is ClimatePath. Their business model allows the consumer to decide where his or her money is invested. Projects they fund range from installing energy efficient light bulbs in New Orleans (at a cost of $25 per ton of CO2 emitted) to preserving Costa Rican Rainforests ($12 per ton).

The theory behind carbon offset trading may seem environmentally sound and positive, but in actuality it is a business. In 2007, The New York Times estimated carbon trading “will be the world’s biggest commodity market, and it could become the world’s biggest market overall.” People are profiting off of the environment once more, only this time it is masked as “green.”

There has been much scrutiny surrounding the concept of carbon offsets. On June 2, the non-profit group Friends of the Earth released a 32-page document urging governments involved in carbon offsets to drop plans to expand their offsetting schemes. The theory of offsetting on a global scale suggests that greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced in either rich or poor countries, but in actuality, change is needed in both. “Offsets are a dangerous distraction … It is almost impossible to prove that offsetting projects would not have happened without the offset finance. Nor is it possible to calculate accurately how much carbon a project is saving,” claims the report.

How can we harness this theory, which has gained and continues to gain serious momentum, to promote actual, viable, tangible change?

In 2006, the city of Berkeley, California voted in favor of reducing their carbon emissions. In 2007, they proposed the concept of local carbon offsets – voluntary donations that would be used to fund local projects to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the community. One of the projects suggested was an investment in Solar Schools. The idea never made it off of the ground.

We, in the Pioneer Valley, could attempt to do the same thing, except this time see it to fruition. Another idea could be the investment in a community wind farm, or making donations to non-profit organizations whose aims are to raise environmental awareness in the area. Or using the money to promote methane capture technology in the area. The possibilities are endless. The only entity that should profit from a carbon offset trading scheme is the environment.

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