If your carbon footprint makes you feel guilty, there’s an easy way out

Image: Reuters/Darrin Zammit-Lupi
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“We think a lot about our carbon footprint,” says Deborah Markowitz. She diligently recycles, avoids eating meat most days, burns wood pellets for heat, and drives an electric car if public transport isn’t available. That’s all pretty standard fare for the environmentally conscious. But last week she did something that even the greenest of people rarely do.

When Markowitz, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Vermont, traveled with her husband to Washington, DC for the People’s Climate March, she paid $42 to buy carbon credits to offset the three metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted by the flight. Markowitz used a service called Native Energy, one of many now offering carbon credits to a growing number of environmentally conscious consumers.

The idea is simple: if you can’t avoid burning a large amount of fossil fuels, you pay someone else to prevent an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases from getting into the atmosphere. The upshot is that your flight is now carbon-neutral—you’ve avoided inflicting the environmental damage that could’ve come from those extra emissions.

Most services that sell carbon credits suffer from a lack of transparency. Anyone paying a not-insignificant sum to offset her emissions would want to know her money is not going down a black hole.

Cool Effect launched in 2016 to address that problem. The crowdfunding platform lets you explore the projects your carbon credits are funding. “We are serving 130 million Americans who are concerned about climate change,” says co-founder Dee Lawrence. “Buying carbon credits is a way of taking real, verifiable action.”

Poo to gas.
Poo to gas.
Image: Cool Effect

Take the “productive poo project” in rural Karnataka, India. When you buy a carbon credit for $11, you are guaranteed a reduction of one metric ton of carbon dioxide in return. That’s accomplished by using your money to build new biogas plants, which consume cow dung and produce methane.

Cow dung degrades and produces methane naturally, but the methane goes into the atmosphere where it acts as a greenhouse gas that absorbs 50 times as much of the sun’s heat as a molecule of carbon dioxide. At the biogas plant, the methane is collected and supplied to nearby households as a clean fuel for cooking stoves. (Burning the methane produces carbon dioxide that still goes into the atmosphere, but the overall heat trapped is much lower this way.)

Cool Effect works with third-party international organizations, such as Gold Standard, that verify carbon-offsetting projects. This way a project is allowed to sell certified carbon credits only if the additional money definitely reduces emissions by the promised amount. Cool Effect currently has 10 projects—from building wind power to growing back forests—allowing you to offset carbon-dioxide emissions at a cost of between $4 and $13 per metric ton. So an average American could neutralize all his or her annual 17 metric ton of greenhouse-gas emissions for as little as $70.

Services like Terra Pass, Stand for Trees, and Carbon Fund offer similar carbon credits for sale to both individuals and businesses. Since 2008, for instance, JetBlue’s crew and customers have purchased enough carbon credits from Carbon Fund to offset about 800,000 metric tons of greenhouse-gas emissions.

Carbon credits can help companies achieve ambitious sustainability goals. The $55 billion tech company Salesforce, for instance, has set a goal to power its cloud-computing servers with only renewable energy. But until it can secure enough clean electricity wherever needed, the company is buying carbon credits from Cool Effect to help offset its remaining emissions from fossil-fuel powered electricity. That has allowed Salesforce to claim that since last month all its cloud customers are using servers that, in effect, produce no carbon-dioxide emissions.

Still, there is a long way to go. Global carbon-dioxide emissions in 2016 were about 36 billion metric tons. “We are participants in a voluntary market, and our biggest hurdle is a lack of awareness,” Lawrence says.

Cool Effect is hoping to overcome the hurdle that by making the process of buying carbon credits easy and more transparent. “Most people I talk to don’t know what carbon credits are or don’t know how easy it is to buy them,” Lawrence says.