I’ll admit that math has never been my best subject. But I have a pretty good grasp of its basic concepts — and I wonder if the relatively new phenomenon of “carbon offsets” adds up.
Like everyone else who cares about the environment and the slippery path we’re on, I’d like to think that I can reverse some of the damage that my presence on Earth causes. By contributing to a carbon offset program when I travel, I’m told, I can sort of “erase” the ill effects to the atmosphere that my very trip is causing. In short, I can buy my way out of any eco-guilt for my journeys.
It works like this: Automobiles and airplanes emit carbon dioxide (CO2), a big contributor to global warming. Statistics show that jet engines spew out about 3.5 percent of the world’s human-generated carbon dioxide; autos about 15 percent. However, traveling by air isn’t necessarily better than a trip by car; releasing greenhouse gases such as CO2 at high altitudes is three times more damaging than discharging them closer to the ground.
But with a carbon-offset program, we’re told, we can pay a small fee to counter the emissions produced by our flights. The fee, in turn, will be used to help fund clean-energy projects around the world — such as building windmills or solar power plants — in an effort to reduce demand for fossil fuels.
Some carbon-offset programs use the money to plant trees to absorb carbon dioxide. The cost to participate in such programs is usually $10 to $30 per ton of CO2 emitted as a result of specific activities such as air travel, your annual commuting miles, or having a package shipped to you. A ton of CO2 is approximately the amount attributed to one passenger flying round-trip between New York and Los Angeles.
Are we being sold a math that is too simple? The workings of nature are complicated and so intertwined that a one-to-one correlation between the damage that an airplane flight causes in CO2 emissions can’t be equated to purchasing shares in a solar power plant or by planting a tree. CO2 cannot be instantly sucked back out of the air; those “green” power plants could take years to build; and it takes decades for a tree to grow — time we might not have before we reach the tipping point in a quickly warming world.
Is carbon offsetting just a story we like to tell ourselves to make us feel better about our travels? Maybe it’s like newspaper headlines of blizzards and sub-zero temperatures amid a barrage of global warming articles predicting future doom for the planet. It’s what I call “Band-Aid hope”: making transitory low temperatures “news” just might make us feel — for a day or two, at least — that global warming isn’t just around the corner; that it’s all a myth.
But perhaps the power of carbon offsetting isn’t in its math after all. While I might do better by the planet by using compact fluorescent light bulbs or wrapping a blanket around my water heater than by purchasing a carbon offset on my next trip, maybe it’s the awareness these programs engender that should make them “figure” prominently in any travel preparations.
What do you think? Share your comments below.
Happy trails and lots of good reading,