Carbon offsets

Going carbon neutral: the scoop on offsets.

You want to keep traveling, right? Staying home may be greener but what a drag! But flying from New York to Honolulu emits an average of 2½ tons of offsetting your travels is the green way to gogreenhouse gases per passenger. For an entire year the average American emits 21 tons of carbon. In other words, air travel is definitely carbon intensive even if it accounts overall for only about 3% of global carbon emissions (although the carbon dioxide (CO2) and other pollutants that come out of jet exhaust contribute disproportionately to increasing surface temperatures below because the warming effect is amplified in the upper atmosphere.) It isn’t the perfect solution (not flying would be, but is that what we really want?), but you can neutralize your own contribution to global warming by purchasing carbon offsets through legit organizations that plant trees to absorb carbon dioxide, invest in alternative energy or other green ventures.

Granted, how effective offsets are is a bit complicated. Organizations that manage offsets are largely unregulated (though the federal government is showing increased interest in monitoring their claims), and they are proliferating so fast that a few bad apples—operations that promise more than they deliver—are inevitable.

How do you choose? The major online travel bookers have already partnered with offset providers, and you can use them with reasonable confidence. Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz all have offset options that will plant trees or support alternative energy research. Air Canada, British Airways, SAS and Cathay Pacific are among the overseas carriers who offer offsets. US airlines are joining in too. Continental Airlines lets travelers track the carbon impact of their itineraries (to purchase offsets elsewhere), and Delta Airlines will sell you an offset on its website (it plants trees in a Louisiana nature refuge).

How about your hotel stay?

Every day you stay at a hotel, you might burn enough fossil fuel to release 33 pounds or more carbon dioxide into the air, so hotel groups are beginning to offer offsets for their guests’ stays. One provider of these is run by a nonprofit called Sustainable Travel International; it markets “mini-green tags” that fund conservation and renewable energy. Leading Hotels of the World, an association of luxury hotels, will pay for mini-tags for your entire stay if you book through itsspecial website. The group that runs Radisson, Regent and other hotel chains in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa allows guests to put loyalty points toward offsets.

The offsetting best

The environmental group Clean Air/Cool Planet sponsored an industry report card, and it selected these 8 sellers of carbon offsets as best:

* Also chosen by the Sierra Club as its offset partner

Two other well-known providers are TerraPass and CarbonFund.

Why do prices differ? It depends on the projects the program funds, whether prices are a set amount (domestic or international flight) or calculated by miles traveled, and whether the provider wants a profit. For-profit funds charge more than nonprofits, and the most expensive funds charge about 10 times more than the cheapest.

As a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council puts it, “We can’t stop global warming with voluntary offsets, but they offer an option for individuals looking for a way to contribute to the solution in addition to reducing their own emissions and urging their elected representatives to support good policy.”