The carbon neutral life

Leslie Carlson

A friend recently startled me with a comment that she thought her life was pretty much carbon-neutral. “Someone did the calculation for me, and it looks like we offset the carbon we burn,” she said.

Science geeks and policy wonks aside, most people probably don’t think much about “offsetting” carbon. It’s a shame, though, because the whole idea is pretty simple.

Each of us, just by going about our daily lives, emit carbon that leads to climate change. Whether you release it directly by driving your car or more indirectly by purchasing products that have to be shipped long distances by carbon-emitting trucks, planes or trains, all of us are part of the problem.

By offsetting carbon, individuals and companies are investing in something that reduces or eliminates carbon—like buying renewable wind energy (reducing the need to burn coal) or in tree-planting projects (because trees eat carbon). Think of it as a voluntary fee you might pay for burning a hazardous substance.

I expect these kinds of “fees” may not be voluntary for long. You can’t read a magazine or a newspaper these days without reading of the dire transformation of a planet under climate change. From Vanity Fair to Wired and HBO, eveyone seems to be clanging the warning bell ever louder. Melting glaciers, rising sea levels, higher temperatures—it’s easy to wonder what one single person do to ameliorate these planet-sized problems.

A few years ago, however, I decided to take a quote from Gandhi to heart and “be the change I want to see in the world.” First, I took a look at the carbon my own family creates—and at some simple things we could do to reduce (or even offset) our portion.

And you know what? It hasn’t been that hard. Here are a few quick descriptions of what we’ve done:

Bike, take the bus, walk—even if it’s just one day a week. First my husband started riding a low-emission, 100 mpg scooter to work one day a week. Lately, he’s started taking the scooter more than the car. Inspired by him, I committed to riding the bus one day a week, which then grew to three or four times. Recently, I’ve added the occasional bike commute. Gradually, we’ve managed to greatly reduce the need to drive our cars.

Buy local. For us, it all started with apples. Several years ago, a market opened near our home that featured a good selection of local produce. I started buying Oregon and Washington apples because they tasted great, and I felt good supporting local farmers. Now we belong to a community shared agriculture (CSA) that delivers fresh, seasonal produce to our neighborhood—so we can eat almost exclusively local produce for about seven months of the year. It not only tastes great, but I feel better knowing that tonight’s broccoli wasn’t trucked in from Florida. We now try to purchase as much as possible—be it bikes, appliances or home renovation services—from local shops and vendors.

Grow a victory garden. If you can’t get local produce where you live, there’s nothing more local than growing an old-fashioned vegetable garden. Ours has introduced our children into the joys of freshly-picked green peas and home-grown crunchy cucumbers (really!).

Consume what you really want. I like to buy clothes. I used to buy anything that looked good to me on that particular day or that was on sale. I would end up throwing away clothes after one or two wearings. Several years ago, I decided to buy only the things I really wanted, resisting the temptation to buy on a whim. And you know what? I really like the clothes I have now—and I have fewer to wash. I also create less waste, because I keep what I buy longer.

Offset the carbon you create. There are a couple ways to offset your carbon. First, invest in renewable energy through your local utility. It costs a little extra, but it’s greatly worth the price knowing that you are helping transform the energy market to use more renewable power. The Climate Trust and Mercy Corps have teamed up to provide, which calculates your carbon and allows you to offset it through donating to environmental projects in the developing world. If you travel a lot, consider offsetting the carbon created by your airplane ride by buying your ticket through the Better World Club (it’s cheap—it costs only about $11 to offset the average domestic flight). You can also offset the carbon created by your car through Trees for the Future's Sunflowermid
“Cool Car Certificate”: about $40 offsets all the carbon your car creates over its lifecycle and plants about 400 trees.

Oddly, what started out as an exercise in deprivation has had hidden benefits. We are actually getting more out of life. Riding my bike and walking means forgoing the time and expense of a gym membership. Buying less means there isn’t as much to repair, clean or maintain. Buying local has given us a network of shopkeepers and businesspeople I can trust. Best of all, cutting out unnecessary car trips, errands, shopping and commuting has meant more time with my kids. In most ways I can see, the carbon-neutral life is the better life—for me, for my family, and for the planet.

Someday, we may all pay a carbon tax at the pump, when we buy a car, or take a plane trip. Until then, think for yourself about the carbon for which you are responsible, then do something—anything—about it. You might even enjoy it.

  • (Show?)

    Thanks, Leslie. I was pondering writing my own carbon-offset column, but I'm nowhere near as conversant on the issue as you are...... This is good stuff.

    I'm surprised at how inexpensive it can be to do personal carbon-offsets...

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    This is an important issue, Leslie, but we need to be careful not to fall for green-washing, feel-good measures that do not fix the real problem.

    For instance, I have strong doubts that spending $40 to plant 400 trees - seedlings, no doubt - offsets the carbon release your new auto will be responsible for over its lifetime. The reasons are many:

    • Carbon in the biosphere cycles. What grows eventually rots. Burned petroleum is [almost] forever.

    • Land where these 400 trees are planted would likely grow something regardless of human intervention, unless your $40 somehow pays for irrigation and fertilization of otherwise barren land - activities that release carbon, by the way.

    • Buying green power is better than nothing, but far more progress could be made with tax credits for sustainable power - we used to have this - that makes green power cost the same as fossil fuel derived power. The perversity of the present system is demonstrated in PGE's present rate increase request. Although increasing costs are almost all because of increasing fossil fuel prices, they want to increase the price for wind power an equal amount. So, in effect, wind power buyers are paying PGE to buy more expensive natural gas, which, under other perversities of utility regulation, means PGE will make more money. There must be a better way than this to promote sustainable power.

    Your other suggestions are great ideas. We all need to do more, but we shouldn't believe we are doing more than we are.

    And...our problems go far beyond carbon emissions. Total energy use, water degradation, ecosystem destruction, toxics emissions, etc. are all doing great damage to the planet. We need to address these, as well, when we contemplate lifestyle changes.

  • (Show?)

    This is an important issue, Leslie, but we need to be careful not to fall for green-washing, feel-good measures that do not fix the real problem.

    Good point about greenwashing, Tom--I certainly don't want to give people bad information. $40 does seem a bit low...but not being a scientist or even much of a mathematician, I can only go on the information that organizations give out. Anyone else out there know more about the cost of offsetting one's car?

    Total energy use, water degradation, ecosystem destruction, toxics emissions, etc. are all doing great damage to the planet. We need to address these, as well, when we contemplate lifestyle changes.

    While I totally agree with you on this point, I think it's hard for people to tackle all these issues at once. It's easier for human beings to think in the short-term about single actions causing specific consequences, which is why the call to make one's life more "sustainable" falls flat. It's easier to make simple changes, and think about them in simple terms, then to try and tackle water, toxic emissions, ecosystem degradation etc. in one shopping trip at the grocery store.

    This is why I think humanity has been thus far completely unsuccessful at tackling the problem of climate change--it's too big, and it's hard for people to link the action of driving today with next year's climate. I'm struggling--as many of those concerned with environmental issues are--to find ways to communicate that individual actions do have consequences and that simple changes can make a difference. My hope is that small lifestyle changes, over time, will lead to bigger lifestyle and then community-wide changes and that in some way, the sum of these changes will lead to a solution.

  • jami (unverified)

    that carbon test is better than another i took. the first had me spewing fifty times the average carbon, even though i bike when it's sunny and take the bus when it's cold! the experience was so discouraging that i wanted to call the whole thing off and buy a car.

  • (Show?)

    We tend to look at things through our own little egocentric filter, rather than thinking of biology of scale. It hardly seems to matter if we make small changes in our lives--so insignificant are we. But if you look at it through the inverse, it actually only takes small changes made by large groups of people to achieve substantial benefits.

    Although I agree with Tom in the absolute, politically, what Leslie suggests is achievable on an ordinary level. Many of the things she suggests are actually pleasant--certainly manageable. They become powerful when we all do them.

    True, I would love to see everyone in America scrap their cars for biodiesel or even hybrids, which would have a massive effect on the environment. But that's not remotely politically viable. The only thing that stands in the way of smaller changes like Leslie suggests, though, is failing to see the value. It's huge. Thanks, Leslie--

  • truffula (unverified)

    about $40 offsets all the carbon your car creates over its lifecycle and plants about 400 trees.

    Carbon accounting is not a straightforward endeavor and methodologies vary. Afforestation and reforestation yield yield a big short-term draw-down but the net long-term sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere takes place very slowly. Additionally, the net long-term sequestration is a small fraction of the total carbon involved in growing new trees. The science here is still emerging. The recent IPCC report on Land Use is a good place to start. Here's the Carbon Budget of Terrestrial Ecosystems section of that report.

    Planting trees is a fine thing to do, but it's a small part of a big puzzle. If I were going to focus a campaign on individual steps that people might actually take (rather than tackling many, which is, as Leslie points out, quite daunting), I'd pick something other than the mostly feel-good tree planting thing. Why do we expect/demand that doing the right thing be easy?

    (FWIW, I am a scientist who works on climate problems, though not the carbon cycle.)

  • Jeremiah Baumann (unverified)

    Thanks for putting this huge issue up for conversation, Leslie. I think it's incredibly important for progressives to seize the moment -- with global warming news everywhere we turn -- and make sure we get real social change on this issue in the next few years. It's not only necessary for saving the planet, it's also a great way to show Oregonians that progressives and enviros care about issues like energy prices and fossil fuel dependence that affect their daily lives.

    One important message is that while people should do everything they can, it's even more important from my perspective to make society-wide change happen. We can all pay PGE extra for green power, but we can also pass a Clean Energy Standard requiring that their electricity be 25% renewable. We can all go out and buy energy-efficient light bulbs (and we should -- they're a great deal!), or we can pass a bill setting higher standards for all appliances and increasing funding for the Energy Trust to help people buy even better appliances. You get the idea.

    OSPIRG is starting to put together a clean energy agenda for the next legislative session and legislators from across the political spectrum are showing interest in addressing these issues. Building on the last session, when we passed a solar tax credit increase and an appliance efficiency bill, we want to do more of the same, but this time make it really big. 25% clean energy by 2025 (which Teddy K already supports), a big boost for solar power and community wind farms, and lots more big ideas. Shoot me an email at jeremiah at ospirg dot org if you have ideas or you want to get involved in putting it together.

  • (Show?)

    One important message is that while people should do everything they can, it's even more important from my perspective to make society-wide change happen.I wonder if Leslie might not have the right of it and the focus on "society-wide change" might not be exactly the wrong way to approach the problem.

    In my experience, when you get people interested in personally doing what they can they tend to put more effort into understanding the issue, they are more invested in solving it and more open to the higher level solutions. I also think that if we are trying to achieve social change which requires the cooperation of the general populace we are much more persuasive if we take that part about doing everything we can on a personal level very seriously. Moral authority matters. On a strictly practical level, models of behavior can be very useful. I'm for the government increasing energy efficiency standards and I'm glad for the work being done there but the marketplace is at least as powerful an agent of change--probably more powerful if you can really harness it.

  • Karl (unverified)

    Easing up on the use of stored carbon (oil-gas-coal) can certainly slow down the onset of global warming a little. Leaving it in the ground is the only thing that might stop its progression. That's certainly not happening on a world wide basis. We're fighting wars over who gets to take it out of the ground and sell it.

    I don't believe planting trees helps to be "carbon neutral" at all. They are just part of the surface give and take of carbon and will give it up when they die. Letting nature regenerate itself on fallow ground is probably more efficient for that purpose anyway. (Don't get me wrong, I've planted lots of trees on our place-mostly red woods. I Just think i'm preparing for, not preventing global warming.)

    As my own little symbolic gesture, i have stopped recycling all my paper and now send some of it to the dump where it can be buried and perhaps taken out ot the system. I know that's a spit in the ocean, but it might be just a taste of "carbon neutral".

    I sure wish our leaders could get it together to help us lead the world in learning how to live without fossil fuels before we use them all up and put all that carbon in the surface system.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Karl's correct about carbon cycling, but dumping paper to sequester carbon is a good example of what can happen if we think about environmental issues in isolation. Remember that we are still clearcutting old growth to make paper. Besides, organics in a dump eventually rot, releasing methane, a more powerful greenhous gas than CO2. Recycle your paper, Karl!

    If thinking about the environment as an integrated whole [and if there's one overriding principle of nature, it's that everything is connected] is too complex for most folks, then it's up to those who grok to lead the way by suggesting behaviors that address the totality of our environmental impact. It's hard work, but we have only one planet.

  • Karl (unverified)

    Tom, They don't make paper out of old growth. It's too valuable. You're probably right about modern dumps though. They are pretty much set up to make sure stuff eventually rots. Do you have any ideas how we could successfully sequester carbon for the long haul to really create some carbon neutrality?

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)


    Here's a few pages on old growth trees made into paper. You 'll need to copy and paste as it takes too damn long to make them live links:

    People are working on long-term carbon sequestering, but the processes I've heard about are energy intensive, and therefore of little use until we have copious non-fossil fuel energy available [that will be never in my opinion].

    As I see it, we won't stop pour megatons of fossil fuel carbon into the air until gas, coal, and oil are too expensive to burn. It's not that I'm a pessimist; it's just that humanity is dependably shortsighted and greedy.

  • (Show?)

    One point about the methane/carbon tradeoff.

    If we can extend our "recycling culture" a bit further......Methane has been an energy source that we've mostly ignored, but it is being done on the "demonstration project" level, using municipal dumps, manure from feedlots, etcetera.

    Heck, my old Dad recalls family level methane sytems in rural Japan back in the 50s.

    There's more to be done in this area.......

  • truffula (unverified)

    I understand that the point of this story was different, but I think it is worth commenting that something nearly entirely missing from the global warming conversation is figuring out how we are going to cope with the coming changes we have already bought into (sequestration notwithstanding). The trail of human history is littered with societies laid low by climate change. The more we know and the more we prepare, the better off we will be.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)


    I don't think we are ready to seriously prepare for what we have wrought. How about these preparations:

    • End all longterm infrastructure investment in coastal cities that will be eventually drowned - we're looking at a 50 foot sea level rise in this century. Don't even consider rebuilding New Orleans.

    • Do the same in SW US cities that will get even hotter and drier and not be able to afford energy for air conditioning. Phoenix will go up in flames.

    • Stop having babies.

    • Ban new industrial development that uses large amounts of fresh water.

    • Figure out what to do with all the folks whose islands are going under.

    • Figure out how we are going to feed Europe when the Gulf Stream stops and the ice age descends.

    I can go on, but I doubt we will do any of these until the mass die-off begins. We're too busy making money and watching American Idol.

    • Learn to eat beans, lots of beans.
  • Karl (unverified)

    I stand corrected about paper and old growth. My mistake was extrapolating from the local market where no one would dream of sending good lumber logs to a pulp mill when they could get several times more $ at a lumber mill. I guess the economics are different in northern Canada and Siberia.

  • Tree huggers are big fat liars (unverified)

    Tom: I only got as far as "50 foot sea level rise" before I broke down laughing. If you want to be taken seriously, you need to at least try and stick to the Greepeace or lefty-scientist predictions...

    The scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research say 4" to 12" by the year 2100

    Greepeace predicts as much a 3 meter sea-level increase over the NEXT 1000 YEARS That's about 30 feet less than 50, amigo.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)


    Sorry that I don't have a link for you. The number came from a climate scientist interviewed on NPR in the past few weeks. He said that there are NO models which do NOT forcast melting of Greenland's ice sheet and the West Antarctic ice sheet at current atmospheric CO2 levels. By the way, USGS says that melting of all the earth's ice would raise sea level approximately 260 feet.

    Do you always act so boorishly, or does global warming get you hot under the collar?

  • THABFL (unverified)


    I heard a paranormal expert on the radio last week who said there appears to be link between Big Foot and UFO's. Just because I heard it on the radio (even NPR) doesn't make it true, or even probable.

    Boorish is suggesting that other people should stop having babies based on your ill informed and paranoid view of the future.

    Wild eyed projections of your own self doubt upon future generations is a poor excuse for advocacy. If you want to light a candle, plant a tree, join the Greens, then you have my blessing. If you want to parrot some dumb-ass comment you heard on the radio, at least have the decency to admit you know nothing about global warming before puking your wisdom onto the blogosphere.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)


    So you suggest that a claim by a climate scientist is equivalent to a claim by a paranormal expert, or is that just your weak attempt at irony?

    Besides the tactics of lowbrow ad hominem attack, what do you know, particularly about the science involved or my psychological state?

  • Thabfl (unverified)


    Here's my evidence of a linkage between UFO sightings and Bigfoot. I read it on the Internet: it must be true.

    Please provide the name of the venerable Climatologist who predicted a 50 foot rise in sea levels (and WHEN). Better yet, how about a link to the USGS prediction that sea levels will rise 260 feet (and roughly WHEN they expect that fateful day to come, within a 100 years or so).

    Fear mongering is one thing: suggesting it is based on scientific evidence (when there is none) really undermines your position.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    I have not found a link to the recent NPR conversation on sea level rise. Here is an older piece Scientists Predict Faster Sea Level Rise from Voice of America [a real lefty whacho organization, as you know], that mentions a 6 meter - about 19 feet rise.

    You should realize that a few foot rise in sea level would cause destruction of many coastal cities, and much of the world's population lives near seacoasts. Whether the 50 foot comment was a mistatement, or whether the climate scientist interviewed was really a comedian taking part in a spoof, the fact remains that the consensus of the scientific community is that rising sea level will be a massive problem for mankind.

    Th USGS figure given at Sea Level and Climate is 80.32 meters, which equals 263.52 feet. Though no one expects the planet to be ice-free anytime soon, huge differences in historic sea level have been verified. Levels increased by ~25 meters [82.02 feet] in the Cretaceous period.

  • LMAO (unverified)

    Tom: were humans responsible for the 25 meter (82 foot) rise in sea levels during the Cretaceous Period?

    The USGS paper is predicated on the melting of all terrestrial ice packs. They ARE NOT predicting it is going to happen; rather, they are merely using estimates of the volume of water currently stored as ice to illustrate an upper limit of sea level change.

    I thought the below citation was particularly revealing, and supports the theory that global warming and cooling occurs independent of human habitation:

    Glacial-Interglacial Cycles

    Climate-related sea-level changes of the last century are very minor compared with the large changes in sea level that occur as climate oscillates between the cold and warm intervals that are part of the Earth's natural cycle of long-term climate change.

    During cold-climate intervals, known as glacial epochs or ice ages, sea level falls because of a shift in the global hydrologic cycle: water is evaporated from the oceans and stored on the continents as large ice sheets and expanded ice caps, ice fields, and mountain glaciers. Global sea level was about 125 meters below today's sea level at the last glacial maximum about 20,000 years ago (Fairbanks, 1989). As the climate warmed, sea level rose because the melting North American, Eurasian, South American, Greenland, and Antarctic ice sheets returned their stored water to the world's oceans. During the warmest intervals, called interglacial epochs, sea level is at its highest. Today we are living in the most recent interglacial, an interval that started about 10,000 years ago and is called the Holocene Epoch by geologists.

    Sea levels during several previous interglacials were about 3 to as much as 20 meters higher than current sea level. The evidence comes from two different but complementary types of studies. One line of evidence is provided by old shoreline features (fig. 2). Wave-cut terraces and beach deposits from regions as separate as the Caribbean and the North Slope of Alaska suggest higher sea levels during past interglacial times. A second line of evidence comes from sediments cored from below the existing Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets. The fossils and chemical signals in the sediment cores indicate that both major ice sheets were greatly reduced from their current size or even completely melted one or more times in the recent geologic past. The precise timing and details of past sea-level history are still being debated, but there is clear evidence for past sea levels significantly higher than current sea level.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)


    Anyone who has completed 7th grade science should know that climate change predated humanity. If you would actually read some of the peer reviewed science, and the statements of reputable scientific organizations - not industry supported green-washing prostitutes - you would find, over and over, evidence that present and projected climate change is almost certainly driven by human action.

    Natural climate change will likely continue for as long as humans survive. That does not make it wise for us to ignore human effect on the climate that will screw things up for us, not to mention other species that relie on present ecosystems.

  • Albert Gore (unverified)

    Tom: you win the 7th grade science contest.

    That said, I must disagree with your 8th grade theory: "Natural climate change will likely continue for as long as humans survive".

    The geological record indicates that climate change has occurred without human intervention: it is likely to continue with or without human survival. It requires the hubris of mankind to suggest that we have the power to destroy the planet, or the foresight to "fix" it. It may be possible to degrade our environment to the point of discomfort, famine, or more numerous and lethal pandemics. It is conceivable that we may render the planet uninhabitable to many existing species following a nuclear exchange, or profound atmospheric destruction. But many existing species will adapt, and other would (eventually) emerge. What comes around goes around.

    Your theory of aggressive global warming has been oversold and under investigated. You should focus your advocacy on matters of public policy that you actually understand.



  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    LMAO or Albert Gore,

    Evidently, you didn't do too well at 9th grade English.

    "Natural climate change will likely continue for as long as humans survive" does not mean that climate change will end when humans do, but that it will not end before then.

    Certainly many species will adapt and survive any insult humanity can dish out. Would you like to argue against vigorous action to deal with climate change from your last point? Your talking point might be something like "don't worry about the effects of fossil fuel use, the cockroaches will prosper in our absence."

    You are a poor judge of what I understand, since you obviously understand so little yourself, about global warming, science in general, or reasonable discourse.

  • Prince Albert in a Can (unverified)


    Global warming and cooling will occur irrespective of human intervention. The geological record is pretty clear on the cyclical nature of rising and falling sea levels. The Earth doesn't care whether or not we survive as a species. If the cockroaches win, that is their destiny.

    Previous interglacials (warming trends) peaked with sea levels between 3 meters and 20 meters higher than today. Human intervention in the current warming cycle (which began 10,000 years ago) is theoretical at best. We may be impact it on the fringes (making it mildly warmer than it may have been without our existence), but the natural cycles will continue unabated. The pendulum swings back and forth (warming and cooling) irrespective of organic life forms.

    Your "vigorous action" is more likely to represent the imposition of your lifestyle and political beliefs on others, with little or no effect on the environment or global warming.

    It seems wise to concentrate our efforts on something we can more reasonable expect to change, like alternative methods of food production in climates/locations currently viewed as inhospitable or ways to promote family planning. But don't tell strangers to "stop having babies"...It's presumptuous and overbearing to impose your fear based environmentalism on the public at large.

    While I agree that rebuilding a coastal city like New Orleans (already below sea level) makes no sense, you are probably a couple hundred of years early (possibly many millenia) to begin the process of relocating large coastal populations.

    You can stand there shouting "flood" until you're blue in the face. There's really very little you can actually accomplish on a geological scale.

    Instead, you can start managing your emotions more effectively... Start buying real estate at the new "oceanfront" elevations (to create a windfall for future Civiletti generations). Plant trees. Join the greens. Take swimming lessons. Curse at SUVs. Vote Democratic: that is unlikely to prevent global warming, but think how much more pious you will feel compared to those selfish Republicans.

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