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People Turn To Carbon Offset Purchases To Reduce Environmental Impact

One way for a business to “go green” is to purchase carbon offsets. That means a business gives money to a project that reduces carbon to make up for its own carbon output. But what happens when an individual wants to offset his or her own carbon emissions?

If I’ve got somewhere to go, I might hop in my car, turn on the radio and head out as the carbon dioxide from my car heads up into the atmosphere.

The idea behind carbon offsets is that it’s possible to make that CO2 disappear with a donation.

“That’s the impact; that’s the effect that your donation has created by supporting that project, that is removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or creating an energy source that doesn’t produce that carbon dioxide in the first place,” said Linda Kelly with Carbonfund.org.

Carbonfund.org is one of the many nonprofits that takes individual donations to offset CO2 emissions. Kelly walked me through the process. We started with where my carbon is coming from.

“Home energy usage, any vehicle emissions, and then any vacation-type travel would be the primary things,” Kelly said.

On the website, I can calculate my CO2 emissions from all those sources, or I can pick and choose. For example, I can just offset my trip to Germany last summer. I plugged in “Phoenix” as my departure city and “Frankfurt” as my destination. It comes out to 11,312 miles, for a grand total of $20.93 in carbon offsets.

Kelly said you can also skip the calculations and just choose the average annual CO2 emissions for an American, which could be as much as 24 metric tonnes or about 50,000 pounds of CO2. That translates to $240 per year in offsets, though the price varies by organization.

“Then you go to the checkout page where you’re able to select the type of project that you want to support,” Kelly said.

Reforestation in Brazil, a wind farm in India, and a methane reduction project in New York are some examples of where my $20.93 could go. Then that’s it. My flight to Germany is neutralized, right?

“It’s more complicated than that,” said Dr. Harvey Bryan, who has been interested in carbon offsets since the ‘90s. He said there have always been questions about the effectiveness of some projects that offsets pay for, like planting trees. That’s because you can’t really measure how effective a tree is the same way you can with a technological solution.

“Like if you put solar panels on your house, you can put a meter on that and actually measure that, and that can be documented by your utility,” Bryan said. “That is a much higher bankable carbon offset than planting a tree in Brazil.”

While experts might disagree about the effectiveness of some offsets, Bryan hits a point they do seem to agree on - reducing what you can should come first. As for the leftovers, somewhere in the world there’s an offset for that.

Annika Cline was a producer for KJZZ's The Show from 2014 to 2019.