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Practical Sustainability: Offset Your Carbon Footprint

In describing the unusual weather patterns we’ve experienced recently, today’s New York Times reports,

“This El Niño, one of the strongest on record, comes atop a long-term heating of the planet caused by mankind’s emissions of greenhouse gases. A large body of scientific evidence says those emissions are making certain kinds of extremes, such as heavy rainstorms and intense heat waves, more frequent. Coincidence or not, every kind of trouble that the experts have been warning about for years seems to be occurring at once.”

Each month my Practical Sustainability column recommends small actions that individuals can take to reduce their impact on the environment.  Over the course of this year, I have recommended such actions as growing a vegetable garden, reducing consumption of meat products, washing clothes in cold water, using biodegradable pet waste bags and replacing bathroom fans with ones that are more energy efficient. 

But, try as we might, it is impossible for most people to have zero impact on the environment.  So, this month’s Practical Sustainability column advises that we learn about our individual carbon emissions and then consider purchasing carbon offsets to bring down our carbon footprints.

Carbon footprint calculators abound.  Try the calculators at such non-profit web sites as The Nature Conservancy or Foundation.   Or on the web sites of companies like TerraPass.  Or visit the US EPA web site where you can use a calculator on line or download it into Excel.  According to the Nature Conservancy calculator, my household’s carbon footprint is 32 tons of CO2 annually, which compares favorably to a US average of 80 tons per year, but is considerably higher than a world average of 17 tons annually (carbon footprints of households in developing economies are much lower than in those of developed nations). 

Once you know your individual or household carbon footprint, consider purchasing carbon offsets. explains it this way: “Carbon offsets let you help build projects in communities across the country that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions beyond what you can achieve through individual action. Carbon offsets are purchased to fund these projects and diminish the impact of your own GHG emissions, even though the projects are located elsewhere. Carbon Offsets make environmental and economic sense- for emissions that are impossible to reduce, you can use funds to help reduce emissions elsewhere.”  You can invest in carbon offsets by supporting organizations like the ones mentioned above whose projects reduce carbon emissions through renewable energy and reforestation. 

Make sure to support organizations whose projects are verified by third parties and whose results are audited for accuracy.  The Natural Resources Defense Council provides some helpful guidance for identifying and evaluating carbon offset projects.

So, as 2015 comes to a close, think about what you can do in 2016 to reduce your environmental impact…and then consider carbon offsets for the balance of your carbon footprint.  Now that’s what I call Practical Sustainability!

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