Monday, August 16, 2010

Leaving on a Jet Plane…

This is the third and final part of my Carbon Footprint series. By now you have learned how big your carbon footprint is. You have switched to CFLs. You are reducing, reusing, and recycling. You have cut out unnecessary trips with your car. But there is still an elephant in the room posing a very difficult problem for any person who is trying to Be Green.

There will be times when it is essential for you to travel to a far-away destination. Say, for example, you live on one coast and have a relative or two on the other.

Since motorized travel emits carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air, unless you have a lot of time on your hands to walk or bike there, your footprint for the trip will be pretty big. Plane travel emits more CO2 than travel in an economy car. Driving a car emits more than getting there by rail. This calculator will help you determine just how much CO2 will be released as a consequence of your travel, however you choose to get there.

For most of us, unless the travel distance is less than a few hundred miles, flying is the only viable option, and the carbon emissions are hefty. You can’t prevent these CO2 emissions, but you can purchase “carbon offsets” to help you reduce the environmental impact of your flight.

When you purchase a carbon offset, you contribute to energy conservation, renewable energy, or carbon reducing projects that “scrub” an equivalent amount of carbon from the atmosphere to offset what you added to it. 

Not everyone can afford to add this cost to their trip. But I put this information out there for those for whom such a contribution is not a problem, or for those who have an employer who might consider purchasing carbon offsets for company travel.  

There are various sites where you can purchase carbon offsets. I am somewhat familiar with two. Native Energy, a renewable energy company based in Burlington, Vermont, was recommended by my college reunion committee to be one of the more economical options. With the Native Energy calculator, travel from New York City to San Francisco and back was estimated to be 5,137 miles and to emit 2.055 tons of carbon. The cost of Native Energy offsets for this trip was $42. 

Virgin America has partnered with the Carbon Fund, voted the Best Carbon Offset Provider in 2010 by Treehugger, and has made it easy for you to purchase offsets for travel with them — when booking your flight, or in the air, the same way you might order food or entertainment. Using the Virgin America calculator, the same trip came to 5190 miles, with carbon emissions of .93 tons with a cost of $9.34 for offsets, but if “include Radiative Forcing” was checked, the cost rose to $25.22 for 2.52 tons. To explain Radiative Forcing, I refer you to a site at MIT. Radiative Forcing is included as part of the formula at Native Energy. You will get a more accurate estimate if you check this box.

If you decide offsets are for you, be careful where you shop for them. Prices for offsets vary tremendously: You will note quite a difference in price between the two funds I mentioned. And do remember that some calculators include Radiative Forcing and others do not take it into account. Sale of carbon offsets is a growing business, and some funds have been criticized in the media.    

A good site will describe the projects its offsets are helping to fund. My advice is to do a little research before committing any dollars to “doing the right thing.”

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