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Consumers can pay to ease warming guilt

A growing number of companies and nonprofit groups are offering eco-conscious consumers a chance to compensate the planet for the carbon emissions they generate when they drive, fly, use electricity or heat their homes.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jill Cody used to feel guilty whenever she drove her car or flew on an airplane. She worried about pumping heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming.

But the San Jose professor found a way to ease her conscience. She paid a San Francisco company called TerraPass to offset emissions from her car and air travel by investing in wind power and reducing farm pollution.

“I’m part of the solution, not the problem,” said Cody, who sports a TerraPass decal on the decade-old Lexus she drives about 6,000 miles a year. “Now I don’t feel guilty when I drive my car.”

As anxiety over global climate change rises, a growing number of companies and nonprofit groups are offering eco-conscious consumers a chance to compensate the planet for the carbon emissions they generate when they drive, fly, use electricity or heat their homes.

So-called “carbon offsets” are becoming increasingly popular, but critics say they are just a way to assuage consumer guilt and do little to combat climate change. At worst, they can encourage consumption and prevent people from making carbon-cutting lifestyle changes, such as driving less, taking public transit and using less electricity.

“We’re still in a buyer-beware situation where people have to be careful and ask some questions,” said Mark Trexler, president of Portland-based Trexler Climate and Energy Services. “The key question is — is your money helping to make something happen that wouldn’t otherwise happen?”

Pricing carbon
Firms that sell such offsets help consumers calculate how much carbon their activities generate, then pledge to counterbalance the environmental impact by restoring forests, forcing businesses to curb emissions and funding renewable energy such as wind and solar.

For example, the Conservation Fund, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit that restores wilderness on unproductive farmland, lets consumers offset their emissions by paying to plant trees. The group has a partnership with online travel company Travelocity that gives travelers the option of making a donation to the fund when they buy plane tickets.

It costs about $4 to offset a ton of carbon, and about $80 to offset the 20 tons of carbon the average American generates in one year, said the fund’s Chris Fanning. Each tree absorbs more than a ton of carbon over a 100-year life cycle.

“It allows people to take personal responsibility and action in their own lives,” Fanning said.

Backers say carbon offsets can help make people more conscious of climate change — and show policymakers that Americans want the government to take action to stop global warming. Experts say the atmospheric buildup of greenhouse gases is leading to extreme weather, melting snowcaps, species extinction and rising seas.

San Francisco-based TerraPass is another of more than 30 companies and nonprofit groups that promise to ease global warming guilt by selling carbon offsets.

The firm tells drivers that for $49.99 they can make up for the 12,000 tons of carbon a typical sedan or station wagon produces in a year. Ford Motor Co. encourages buyers to offset emissions from their cars through TerraPass.

TerraPass has a complex formula for calculating how much it costs to offset a certain amount of carbon, and the company keeps a portion as profit. It charges customers of $5.99 to neutralize the carbon generated from one seat on a 2,200-mile flight, $16.99 for a cross-country flight and a $29.99 for an international flight.

Monitoring by nonprofit
The money is used to fund projects that generate clean electricity from wind, landfills and cow manure, and the offsets are verified by the Center for Resource Solutions, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that works to increase the demand for renewable energy, said Tom Arnold, TerraPass’s chief environmental officer.

Arnold claims his company has counteracted the effects of 165 million pounds of carbon since it was founded by University of Pennsylvania Professor Karl Ulrich and his students two years ago.

“It helps you think differently about climate change and what you can do to fight it,” Arnold said.

Yet some observers note that increasing renewable energy doesn’t necessarily reduce the use of conventional electricity sources that emit carbon. And while trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere, the process is spread out over the decades of a tree’s lifetime.

'Not a license to pollute'
People concerned about global warming should first do everything they can to reduce their personal emissions — and only buy offsets for activities for which there are few green alternatives such as flying, environmentalists say.

“It’s not a license to pollute,” said Craig Noble, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which offsets emissions from its employees’ travel. “The idea is not to buy a Hummer and then at the end of the year buy offsets for your driving.”

Carbon offsets are not new. Utilities, power providers and other corporations have been buying them since the 1990s to comply with state laws requiring them to compensate for their emissions or prepare for future federal regulations.

In recent years, corporations have bought them to burnish their green credentials. The North Face, an outdoors supplier, and grocery chain Whole Foods have offset emissions from their stores and office buildings. Organizers of the Super Bowl, Winter Olympics and Dave Matthews Band tour have promised to make their events carbon-neutral.

Now the trend has caught on with environmentally minded consumers like Larry Coury, a New York patent attorney who doesn’t own a car, rides the subway to work and pays extra so his home electricity only comes from renewable energy sources.

Coury’s job requires frequent travel, but there are no carbon-free alternatives to flying. So he paid extra to offset the emissions for a recent flight to West Virginia that he booked through Travelocity.

“It makes me feel a little bit better,” Coury said, “to take whatever steps I can to address global warming.”