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Carbon Offsets for Individuals: When To Use Them and What They Do

Carbon Offsets for Individuals: When To Use Them and What They Do

Carbon offsets are a way that individuals can make up for the environmental harm and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that they create throughout their daily lives or to ease the guilt of living a little bit more luxuriously. But why is that necessary, when should I do it, and how does it really help anything?

CO2 emissions can be offset in a number of ways, including through personal environmental volunteer work that goes towards general conservation and various forms of carbon sequestration. When completed by companies, it typically entails donating money to an organization that completes conservation efforts on their behalf. Many of these efforts involve reforesting projects that plant enough trees to absorb all of the carbon that they were responsible for producing that year, or projects that increase energy efficiency and therefore reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere before it is even emitted. For example, one of the organizations J. H. Appleseed has previously used to offset their carbon emissions, splits up their efforts into three areas: energy efficiency, forestry, and renewable energy. Some of their projects include providing low-income or less-developed communities with more efficient energy sources, restoring various tropical rainforests, and establishing multiple renewable energy plants. 

Carbon offsets are important because they help us to make up for our ecological footprints when they are disproportionate for the size of our planet and the amount of resources that it holds. As every person goes through their daily lives they consume resources and create waste, and often much more than they can see on the surface. For example, for every cup of coffee you drink, on top of the water and beans that you put directly in your mug, you also deplete about 37 gallons of water and plenty of other materials and energy that it took to produce just that small amount of beans. This type of complex process with interconnecting life cycles of various products and services continues at all points in daily life, with every product you purchase and place you drive, and quickly racks up enormous amounts of waste and pollution or other environmental harm. All of these materials that you use or are depleted thanks to your actions and consumer choices can be combined into what is termed an ecological footprint. A person's ecological footprint shows us how much land each person would need solely to themselves in order to produce enough materials to continue their current lifestyle indefinitely. For example, the average American has an ecological footprint large enough to mean that if everyone on the planet consumed materials at that rate, we would need at least five planet Earths to survive. Whether we like it or not, we only have the one, so something has to change. 

Some may brush this fact off simply because not all humans are Americans, and there are many countries out there who have average ecological footprints much smaller than that. Many countries even use up less than one Earth if their consumption rate was constant around the globe, however that does not simply mean that they can even us out and solve the problem that way. Some of these countries can serve as examples to us for simpler and less wasteful ways of living, yet many have much smaller ecological footprints due to the fact that they are less technologically developed. As countries develop they will naturally continue to consume more materials as their technology grows and their population expands, just as the United States went through the Industrial Revolution and later the great baby boom with urban sprawl creating the great suburbia and a huge push from our government to consume more products in order to be a good samaritan and help the economy. Only recently have we begun to see the true long-lasting environmental harm caused by such limitless expansion and consumption and are starting to make up for it. Yet other countries need to get over this developmental hump just as we did and as they similarly deserve to, and their footprints will increase greatly because of it. As we have the benefit of hindsight, it is our job to not stand in the way of their development, but to try and help them do it as sustainably as possible (using renewable energy and other sustainable development strategies) to keep their footprint relatively low for the collective benefit of our health and the health of the planet. 

To help reduce your personal carbon or ecological footprint, you can use various online calculators to monitor it and see what activities you could limit to keep it low, volunteer your time directly for environmental cleanups and other projects, or purchase carbon credits or offsets to make up for certain activities. There are plenty of credible websites you can go to to pay or donate small amounts to counter things like airplane trips or cruises that are known to emit above-average levels of CO2 amid other ecological harm. Please do your research to verify that the organization is legitimate and that your money/offsets are going to the types of projects you support before donating. Offsetting one airplane flight for one person could cost you as little as $5 and make a big difference both for the planet and your conscience, and there are plenty of other activities you can offset as well. Even if you just do it for that one vacation you take each year, remember that every little bit helps!

Suggested Links:

To Calculate Your Footprint:

Ecological Footprint (How many Earths we would need to support everyone on the planet if they lived your lifestyle):

Carbon Footprint (The amount of greenhouse gas emissions your lifestyle produces):

To Offset Your Activities:

Post updated by author on 2/17/23

Jan 16th 2022 Haley Salmon, Owner & Founder

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