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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Offset Your Impact
distributed 9/15/06 - ©2006

Last week, I wrote about the wonderful ways that compact florescent (CF) light bulbs save energy. Because they reduce the amount of electricity consumed, using CF bulbs reduces the amount of carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere. (That true for those of us who get electricity that was generated by burning fossil fuels.) Because there's less CO2, a greenhouse gas, being released, our contribution to global warming is reduced.

Wow! Changing some light bulbs is a great way for a person who is concerned about global climate change to make a difference and reduce their impact.

"But, Peter," you might say, "I've already changed all the light bulbs that I can. I want to do even more to solve this great problem. What else can I do?"

I'm so glad you asked that! As you may have noticed, Notes in September is a series on climate actions. Today, I will follow up on light bulbs with the rather complicated idea of "carbon offsets." Stick with me as I try to sketch out a very important part of how individuals, businesses and nations are doing a good thing about climate change.

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If you followed my advice from last week, you replaced lots of light bulbs around your house. If you were enthusiastic in doing that, your home may now be using only half as much electricity for lighting. You are saving money, and not causing as much damage to the planet. Well done!

But -- those light bulbs are still using some electricity. So is your TV and your computer and your stove and your clothes dryer. How do you reduce all of that electrical use? There are not cheap and easy technologies to help us out there. (Well, you could get rid of the TV, and dry your clothes on a line outside, but you know what I mean!)

Remember that our big concern is with how much carbon dioxide is put into the atmosphere, and not directly about electricity use. So you could make arrangements with your utility company to buy electricity that's generated from renewable sources -- usually wind power. You're still using electricity, but there's no "carbon cost" when it is made without burning coal or gas.

The wind power thing is a little bit abstract. You pay extra for power that comes from a cleaner source. But that clean power is mixed in with the dirty power and shared among all the power users. So you -- being the moral and responsible person that you are -- are really paying to make your region's power system cleaner. Under the very closely monitored accounting system of your utility's green power program, you can know that the kilowatt hours of clean energy that you paid for were actually generated, but the specific electrons running your clock probably didn't all come from a windmill.

Buying renewable energy from your electric company is the most immediate sort of carbon offset. Your extra payments allow them to clean up their act in ways that they would not do, or could not do, unless you paid that extra fee. Some of the electricity you use does come from the coal-fired power plant, but you are "offsetting" that carbon impact by making wind power available to other utility customers (as well as yourself) on the days when the wind is really blowing.

If you're still with me, let's take it another step. It doesn't have to be your local utility that you pay for wind power. Maybe they don't provide that option, or maybe they've sold all of the renewable capacity they have available this year. That doesn't mean you can't get an offset.

You could pay into a fund that will help some other utility company build a wind farm, or a solar electric installation. That facility will be providing carbon-free electrons, and reducing the amount of coal burned in their region. Your support of that project will still offset the carbon that's released when your electricity is generated close to home. A far-away wind farm will never provide any of that power directly to you. But the important thing is that less carbon is being put out overall.

Functionally, paying for renewable energy that's generated thousands of miles away is just the same as buying renewable energy close to home. The greenhouse effects of carbon dioxide are global, not local. The offset you provide might reduce emissions within your own community, or half-way around the world. Either one works.

Are you ready for another stretch? If you want to offset the carbon dioxide that is generated when your electric utility burns coal, you don't have to offset that with changes in electrical generation and use. You could put that money toward a project that provides investment funding for factories to put in more efficient machinery, so that their smokestacks won't put out as much smoke. Or you could underwrite a mass transit system which will get people out of their cars, and reduce the amount of gasoline that is burned. Or you could plant trees that will soak up some of the nasty carbon dioxide.

And -- one more stretch -- you don't have to limit yourself to offsetting the carbon dioxide impacts from your electrical use. You can offset your own gasoline impacts, or the huge amounts of CO2 that are released from your airline flights, or burning the natural gas you use to heat your home. Those offsets can happen anywhere in the world, in many creative and effective ways. The important thing is that you are taking action to reduce humanity's emission of greenhouse gasses, somewhere, somehow.

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The good news about carbon offsets is that you, personally, don't need to research all the companies building wind farms, and the factories that want to replace their boilers. There are many businesses which do that research and make those decisions, and offer convenient ways for individuals (or churches) to buy offsets for some or all of their carbon impacts.

The system that these carbon offset (or "green tag") businesses use is a smaller scale version of the international carbon trading system that is at the heart of the Kyoto Protocols for combating global warming. There is a global carbon exchange where investors and multinational corporations buy and sell a wide range of offsets for carbon emissions. It is a well-established system with clear standards and rigorous verification.

The smaller exchanges which are available to us ordinary folk work on the same system, and they are also monitored and verified to be sure that the offsets are real. Through those businesses, you can choose to offset some or all of your contribution to global warming. If you are really committed, you can strive to be "carbon neutral" and offset all of your impacts. Or you could deal with a smaller guilt factor, and just offset the impacts of your air travel, for example.

Our friends from Presbyterians for Restoring Creation have researched many of the companies which sell these offset credits. They recommend two businesses: Native Energy and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation. I trust the PRC recommendations -- and I'd like to hear from Notes readers who have other suggestions about reputable firms selling offsets.

Next week (God willing), I'll talk about the carbon calculators that are available to help determine how big an offset you might need.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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