eco: carbon offsets to avoid hell

Shamefully, I’ve been traveling a lot recently. This is terrible for the climate, keeping a jet aloft at 600 mph uses tons and tons of fuel that turn into even more tons of CO2. The answer is to not fly, but if you do fly anyway, you can offset your carbon by paying for someone else to reduce their CO2 usage. This is easy to make fun of – rich people buying their way out of their sins – but is better than not doing it.

Next step is to choose an offset program you can trust. You want the biggest CO2 reduction for your money, but the environmental project your money funds must be verifiable (for example the farmer really does reforest a large area), permanent (the farmer doesn’t allow logging next year), and without leakage (the logging company doesn’t simply log elsewhere). There are organizations that certify projects such as Gold Standard, and organizations that certify carbon offset companies, and organizations that certify the organizations the other organizations…

Next is a calculator for your CO2. This is where it gets weird. For a return flight from San Francisco to San Diego,

  • air mile calculators think the one-way distance is 447 miles (720 kilometers).
  • Carbon Neutral thinks the distance is bigger 785 km (490 miles), the CO2 is 0.23 tonnes (regardless of flight class) and the offset costs $3.12 (£2.30). You can set your flight class but it doesn’t seem to affect the CO2.
  • NativeEnergy agrees the distance is 447 miles, the CO2 is 1.13 tons (1 tonne) regardless of flight class. So it thinks flying is really bad. It also rounds up to the next imperial ton, so it wants me to buy 2 tons of CO2 offset for $28.
  • TerraPass thinks the CO2 equivalent is 0.224 tonnes and the offset costs $2.47. Its rate per tonne is only $11 ($4.99 per 1000 lbs). Its calculator doesn’t let you enter a flight class, nor can you enter more than one person per flight (it’s focused on calculating your individual carbon footprint, not the carbon footprint of a family’s flight), nor does it show the CO2 for each flight, it just shows a running total.

From this, Terrapass’s rate is $11 /metric tonne, CarbonNeutral’s is $13, and NativeEnergy is $13.66. I don’t have the time or stamina to use every calculator to price each of my trips. Does TerraPass’s lower rate mean it is more cost-effective, or is backing projects with more bang for each buck, or is fiddling its books?!

I went with TerraPass due to its Green-e cerfitication and low price, despite its poor calculator. But when I first went to pay for some worthy project, oh noes!:

www.terrapass.com uses an invalid security certificate. The certificate is not trusted because the issuer certificate is unknown. The server might not be sending the appropriate intermediate certificates. An additional root certificate may need to be imported. Error code: SEC_ERROR_UNKNOWN_ISSUER

Philosophically, if these projects are worthwhile, why does it matter how much I travel? I should donate all my money to them while staying home. Climate change is the single most pressing event facing planet Earth.

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