End-of-year carbon offsets

in Musings

I’ve written before about how I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions so much as ongoing “I want to deal with this problem” resolutions, but this time around, the timing was right for me to do some more traditional year-end introspection. I’ve been in a new job for just under a year, and a year into a new effort is a good time for some reflections on the state of things. I took a fair chunk of time off of work for the holidays but spent them here in Seattle with my partner’s family instead of traveling, which gave me some more space than usual to do the reflecting.

A lot of things have happened in 2015 that I care about, that I have very deep and troubled feelings about. But not a lot that I can do something about, directly, within the current pattern of my life. Working for the CFPB feels like a step in the right direction, like my work is helping to create the kind of world I want to live in.

But one issue that has been increasingly on my mind this year is climate change. I’m scared about climate change, y’all. I intend to live a nice long life, and while I fully expect that many aspects of the world around me will be radically different in 40 or 50 years, I would really like “basic habitability of large portions of the Earth” not to be one of them. And of course, my individual choices are such a tiny drop in the bucket of the world’s carbon use, but at the same time, millions of those tiny drops all together are what got us into this mess in the first place. So, I make choices to reduce my carbon footprint. I have for awhile now, in various ways, but I’ve been thinking more about new things I can do.

The main new change I have been thinking about is not eating beef anymore. I’ve been eating a meat-lite sort of diet for a long time now - what started off as an issue of saving money when I finished college and started cooking for myself full-time has become a combination of habit, preference, and conscience. But I’ve learned more about the damage of beef production particularly, and I want to become more mindful about avoiding it. I haven’t officially declared “I will never eat beef again,” I am generally wary of making food off-limits, for other reasons. And I am extremely wary of lifestyles that prioritize enforcing ideological purity over achieving sustainable results, and the truth is the difference between me never eating beef again and me eating it maybe a few times a year under special circumstances, is not ever going to be the difference between a climate apocalypse or not. Hell, that’d be true if every meat-eating person in the world decided they’d eat beef a few times a year, vs. never eating it again.

But I don’t think I’m going to buy it to cook at home anymore at all. And I’m going to think twice before ordering it at restaurants. I should really reduce my dairy consumption too, as it’s deeply intertwined with meat production, and dairy cows are still just a really inefficient way to produce food. That one will have a much bigger lifestyle impact for me, though, and I’m still kind of coming to terms with it.

And then, hot on the heels of deciding that I need to be more intentional in my diet choices, I got a tinyletter from Charlie Loyd. Which you should read, because it’s very good, as are all of Charlie’s other letters. Among other things, it talked about carbon offsets, a thing that I have heard about but never pondered deeply. Specifically, buying carbon offsets to make up for air travel, which is another thing I have thought about in passing, now that I travel by air regularly for work. And I found his case for buying offsets extremely persuasive:

“But people don’t like carbon offsets, do they? They’re sometimes compared to indulgences. The criticism is that we can’t individually buy our way out of responsibility for climate change. But in fact we can. I mean, not everyone completely and forever without externalities, but in practice, looking at CO2e per se, absent a substantive critique of the actual in-the-dirt methodology of offsets, we can. We can exchange capital for lack of atmospheric greenhousing. It’s affronting to a common-sense view of responsibility, but it’s how a properly run carbon offset works. We can’t, say, buy a given species back from extinction on a commodity model, but we can most certainly buy a batch of 50,139,800,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 carbon atoms and have them stuck in the ground – that’s really easy. We have a tech that does it pretty much autonomously once you get it set up. But the buying bugs people. I think a lot of what’s scary is the confronting abyss: the knowledge that we can buy carbon, but we’re not.”

(I reproduced the links pretty much entirely for that last one, which made me laugh.)

I absolutely understand the squeamishness around carbon offsets. It feels like cheating. Oh, I don’t really have to change anything, I can just throw money at the problem. But of course I am not just throwing money at the problem. I have been making choices for years that affect my carbon footprint, and I will continue to do so. But climate change isn’t driven by feelings and ~personal responsibility~ or that pesky ideological purity, it’s driven by how much carbon is in the atmosphere. If I spend money to get more carbon out of the air, it will help. And I should help.

So, ok, on Monday I decided to buy carbon offsets, equal to my footprint for the last year. That’s step 1. Step 2 was figuring out how and where to buy them. I started googling “best carbon offset programs” and let me tell you, I did not find a lot of useful recommendations up front. What I found first off was a lot of hand-wringing about how offsets aren’t enough, we all have to pitch and do our part. Ok, yes, good, I’m on board. I live in a small apartment and keep the heat low. We live in a walkable neighborhood with good transit access, and we drive our 25-year-old fuel-efficient car less than 4,000 miles per year. Mostly to the grocery store where I don’t buy much meat and now I’m going to buy even less beef. I do the things, I have the money, just let me spend it to do more?

Beyond that, there’s also a ton of caveats about making sure that the program buy from is actually reputable, that the money will go to fix carbon that wouldn’t have otherwise been fixed, in the amounts promised. Yes, ok, this is important too, but how do I figure that out? I understand that there’s probably a lot of good reasons to avoid saying outright “give your money to this program, it is the good one” but come on. I’m not an expert in carbon-offseting projects. I would like an expert to tell me what to do.

What I finally found was Green-e, a 3rd-party certifier of carbon offset programs that I saw recommended several times for their thoroughness. After poking around a bit on the websites of some of the certified providers, I settled on Terrapass. Unlike a few of the options which only deal with business contracts, they offer direct offsets to consumers, and they had a reasonably thorough carbon footprint calculator, which I used to estimate my annual carbon footprint. And then I rounded up to make up for the fact that they don’t include diet in the calculator, and finally, bought my carbon indulgence.

I guess I can’t say that I recommend buying through a specific company either because, I don’t know, none of the Srs Environmental People did, but you know, look at the Green-e certified options. And offset your carbon usage in the new year.