NBC News
By Ron Allen Correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/30/2007 6:54:09 PM ET 2007-04-30T22:54:09

What does the O'Rourke family have in common with The Dave Matthews Band, Timberland and Expedia.com?

They're all measuring their “carbon footprint,” calculating how much pollution their lifestyle causes. Carbon footprints are a way of representing the effect humans have on the climate in terms of the total amount of greenhouse gases produced. 

“For a long time, it was easy to not be aware. Now, with so many things at your fingertips, it’s harder not to be conscious of it,” says Steve O’Rourke.

The family tallies yearly energy use on the Conservation Fund’s Web site. They measure everything, from electricity (4,000 kilowatt hours — down by using energy efficient light bulbs), oil heat (466 gallons for their two-bedroom apartment), to driving (one car that has about 12,000 miles, car pooling and biking to reduce their miles).

They’ve also decided not to travel by air. That’s big savings as one round trip cross country would mean three tons of carbon each.

The O’Rourke family’s carbon footprint is just 15.21 tons per year.

“We’re not neutral and until we are we feel like we have to pay it off,” says Steve O’Rourke.

So they're paying a carbon offset, an investment in a renewable energy project of about $65. This makes them “carbon neutral.” Carbon offsetting balance a unit of carbon dioxide emissions with a product that saves or stores an equivalent amount of CO2. Credits are typically bought and sold through a number of online retailers and trading platforms.

The average American generates about 20 tons of carbon each year, and the biggest cause of that is automobiles. A typical family’s footprint is about 45 tons. That offset is worth is about $675.

Proponents of carbon offsetting say this doesn’t mean that somebody should pay to have a tree planted and then get in their SUV and go to the grocery store. And a recent study warns that while the offset industry is booming, it’s largely unregulated.

Meanwhile, the O’Rourkes try to reduce their footprint by unplugging appliances and recycling plastic bags.

“To us, it doesn’t seem extreme. I kind of think we should be doing more,” says Cathy O’Rourke.

With cloth napkins at dinner, they’re on a strict carbon diet.

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