Tripping Over Green Guilt: A Look at the Value of Carbon Offsetting

I was recently planning a trip to the Bay Area, desperately in need of the city air and life. Don’t get me wrong, the incredible expanse and variety of nature-themed horizons have provided the perfect setting for my recent nesting; but, ironic as it is, I needed a taste of the hustle and bustle of home, traffic, and lights.

COMM Blog KB Image 2015I didn’t want to feel guilty about it, though. As a self-proclaimed environmental steward, it felt like a cardinal sin to make the 400 mile trip. All I could think of was how much carbon I was going to be dumping into the air, and for no better reason other than I felt I was relaxing too hard here in the Sierra and I needed a shot of the city. To appease my mind, I looked into what others were doing about their “green guilt.” Enter carbon offsets. A carbon offset is a reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases made in order to compensate for or to offset an emission made elsewhere. Carbon offset reductions come in many forms–retired carbon credits, tree planting, funding for a wide variety of sustainable technologies and reforestation/conservation projects, as well as many others projects that contribute to carbon reduction. In short, they aim to lessen the impact of the carbon we put out. Purchasing voluntary carbon offsets can better be understood as an act of “donating” money to carbon sequestering projects, thus allowing individuals and businesses alike to “offset” their emissions for any number of activities with a significant carbon footprint.

Carbon Footprint Calculators

There are many online carbon footprint calculators that estimate anything – from how much carbon a certain activity will emit (ie. driving my car to and from the Bay Area) to how much carbon your household is emitting, and this measurement is usually given in pounds. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) cleverly made the comparison that one pound of carbon would fill a balloon two and a half feet wide (think those bouncy rubber exercise balls).  GasBuddy’s Trip Calculator estimated my trip to the bay and back would leave a carbon footprint of about 187 pounds, which I felt was significant enough to make me feel guilty. Purchasing carbon offsets would, theoretically, absolve me of my carbon sin.

Last March, Squaw Valley had the ambitious goal of making their 2014 US Alpine Championship completely carbon neutral, and Sierra Business Council helped estimate the event emissions and then “facilitated the purchase of voluntary carbon offsets through the Climate Action Reserve,” in which the proceeds funded the installation of an anaerobic digester at Joseph Farms, a dairy farm and cheese factory in Merced County. The anaerobic digester captures methane emitted by the manure of their cows, and then burns it to a power generator, thus supplying energy and diverting emissions from the atmosphere. In short, Squaw Valley was able to make their event carbon neutral by funding a project that may not have happened without adequate funding.

It is not, however, a silver-bullet situation. Carbon offset purchasing has been criticized for contributing to corporate greenwashing by allowing big businesses to appear environmentally minded by having funded various environmental projects and essentially “paying for a clean conscience.” These critics often stress that this exchange does not result in meaningful and lasting change–that these individuals and businesses are fooled into believing their carbon footprint never happened. While grappling with this critique, I began to draw a connection between the purchasing voluntary carbon offsets and the infamous green poster-child: recycling.

Recycling & Carbon Offsetting are similar in many ways–one of the main reasons being that they are actions individuals can take and immediately feel like they have made a difference. Many people who partake in these practices are proud for having done so, and tend to encourage others to do the same because they are relatively easy to do; however, some are quick to criticize these actions as being over-touted as a viable solution and purely for show. While I understand the legitimacy of the concerns and critiques of both recycling and purchasing of carbon offsets, it seems the benefits of both practices are undermined when the focus is on the critiquing the details of such efforts (ie. questioning motives). That being said, modern recyclers typically know there is more to be gained by first reducing, then reusing, and finally recycling as a final individual action. We are still consumers of raw material, and if material needs to be used, we are finding ways to recycle it.  Purchasing carbon offsets are similar in this regard in that at this current place in time, it is a very viable practice for those who are unable to reduce their emissions in more creative capacities. We just need to be sure to recognize that it does not make our carbon footprint invisible; it is merely one valuable member of the mop-up crew.

COMM KriseldaBautista SF1 2015Overall

It’s easy to get caught up in the argument of which sustainable efforts are more meaningful than others, or claiming that certain efforts are not “real” solutions; however, when it comes down to it, we must accept that in an ever-changing world there will never be one end-all solution.  The movement towards adaptation, mitigation and sustainability is collective, and every bit counts. 

In a piece on the advantages and drawbacks of carbon offsetting, Chris Woodford writes, “Environmental groups generally agree that the most important thing is for people to reduce emissions first and only then consider offsetting emissions they cannot reduce as a very last resort.” He also suggests a more practical and personal type of “offsetting” through making changes in various other aspects of our lives (ie. offsetting a flight by upgrading your home lighting to energy-efficient LEDs, or upgrading to energy efficient appliances).

I decided to combine carbon offset purchasing with this approach to offset the carbon cost of my trip to the bay: I have funded the planting of 10 trees and am committed to at least one month of Meatless Mondays. offers a number of tips on ways to reduce emissions and also provides a platform to purchase carbon offsets: “Reduce what you can. Offset what you can’t.” If you are invested in minimizing your carbon footprint, I encourage you to get creative with the ways in which you reduce your emissions, and do your research when looking to purchase offsets by making sure they are certified. Woodford recommends those approved by the Gold Standard as they are “the most rigorously certified offsets and the ones most likely to make a difference to the planet.”

The main thing to remember though is that however big or small, every effort counts. Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves unable to take action, stuck tripping over our own self-imposed green guilt, and as 18-year old climate activist Kelsey Juliana stated, “I have everything to gain from taking action, and everything to lose from not.”

Photo Credit: Kriselda Bautista