How To: Re-Centering Your Carbon Karma

(CBS/John Filo)
Hari Sreenivasan is a CBS News correspondent based in Dallas.
Oftentimes, by the hour the CBS Evening News rolls around, a story gets nipped here, tucked there and you're not able to get across everything you wanted to. So, thank goodness for a blog.

Take the phrase that didn't make my story about carbon offsets: "there is no one government or private standard for what carbon neutral means."

That could be a story unto itself.

The simple idea with carbon offsets is that you are trying to clean up the earth a bit for the damage you feel you might be doing – whether it be from the carbon emissions of driving your car, flying in a plane, leaving your plasma TV running all night or the mother of all barbeque pits smoking all day. Travel Web sites such as Orbitz, Travelocity, and Expedia – as well as several major airlines – offer the chance to pay an additional fee right when you book a ticket with them. Companies like DrivingGreen offer opportunities to cleanse your travels on the road.

But I have yet to find a BBQ carbon offset calculator. I'm sure one will pop up if there isn't one.

Is this essentially a form of pollution penance to re-center your carbon karma? Yes and no. You wouldn't do it unless you were concerned. But depending on the vendor, the project, the verification model you choose your dollars could actually make a difference.

What do I get and how do I know I'm getting it?

It isn't as easy as having a tracking number for a package that you shipped. The marketplace is nowhere near the point of maturity where I can track my $45 bucks and see when the thousand pounds of CO2 has been kept out of the air on my behalf.

The Carbon Catalog shows you different providers from all over the world, some will plant trees on your behalf, others, as we saw in the story will turn cow manure back into power, keeping the methane (what comes from a cow's tailpipe is far worse that what comes out of your car's, mind you) from entering the atmosphere. It isn't cheap to buy the generators and capture the methane, so someone had to help the farmer buy that equipment and someone has to help keep it going. Several other projects will fund the purchase of solar panels or keep windmills spinning.

What's the real difference?
If I was making a buying decision and I could either by a cheap gas guzzler or a used hybrid for a little more, and you lent me some money for the hybrid – you could or should get some credit for my purchase right? What if I had already purchased the hybrid and you came around offering to pay me some money in exchange for the credit of using less fossil fuels – does that seem fair? No. That is the crux of the debate over what is known as "additionality". When purchasing carbon offsets you have to make sure to check to see whether the money you are paying is actually going to make an additional change, not just paying for something that would have happened anyway.

Can't see the forest for the trees
How about a forester or country with forests - couldn't they blackmail us all by saying, "pay me this money or else I'll cut down this tree?" Yes. This is not how the system is supposed to work. That is part of what the vendor you work with and the verifier they work with is supposed to avoid.

Another concern with reforestation programs is how long it will actually take for that tree or patch of forest to suck up the amount of pollution you generated on a single flight or road trip. What happens if that forest were to catch fire in the interim, or to die of a pine beetle infestation? (Sidenote: that's another story I've worked on!)

Picking can be difficult, what with different prices, different projects and different practices, but fear not there are even a half dozen filters out there from "Gold Standard", Green E, Environmental Resources Trust, Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance, Voluntary Carbon Standard, all aiming to help consumers make the choice.

Think local, think global
Before you think of paying for your existing behavior, do an inventory to see if anything can actually be changed. Drive a bit less. Certainly not everyone can bike to work, but depending on your commute, your locale, your coworkers, perhaps there are opportunities to carpool or take mass transit a tad more – it'll save your wallet a bit at the gas pump, and cut down your carbon emissions to boot.

At the grocery store do you really need the imported New Zealand apples versus those grown in the state nearest to you? Are you willing to pay a couple of more bucks at the farmers market on Saturday morning? It might be better to support that vendor who drives in 20 miles than to buy cheaper goods which have been carted on planes, trains and big trucks with significant hidden fuel costs to get to your mega-market. Whether you are a vegetarian or an omnivore, try to be a "locavore". When you get to the checkout line, the best answer between "paper or plastic?" is to hand them your reusable canvas or cloth bag.

Insulating your house better, and choosing to buy Energy Star appliances, probably can do the most in decreasing your daily energy consumption and in turn your carbon footprint.

If you're a super wonk who likes to bury themselves in long PDF files and hours of webcast testimony on an issue, I would strongly recommend last month's report by the WWF called Making Sense of the Voluntary Carbon Market. You can see one of the authors of this report along with several of the major players in the Carbon Offset marketplace at FTC hearings held this past January.

The moral of the story? Tread lightly, with your carbon footprint that is.