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From Mexico to Palestine: Carbon offsets
By Tracy L. Barnett Posted in Ecotourism, Latin America, Mexico, Mexico City, Sustainability on January 10, 2010
Guadalajara by night - and by bike Previous La Condesa blooms through the chill Next

treeMuch has been written about the pros and cons of carbon offsets. The idea, if you haven’t been following, is that you pay money to a nonprofit organization to plant trees or invest in renewables or otherwise reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere in an attempt to offset the carbon you’ve generated.

There are many calculators online that help you to figure out how much carbon you’ve generated and where you should donate it. Carbon Footprint is a nice flexible one that lets you calculate individual aspects of your life as opposed to doing a whole audit – both can be good, but since I’m on the road, my lifestyle doesn’t easily fit into many of these calculators. Since my main impact is travel, I figured my mileage and multiplied the air travel by 1.9 to account for the increased impact airplane emissions have (the amount used by Carbon Footprint). It then lets you select from a variety of worthy projects from Kenya to Central America.

Critics compare this system with the Catholic Church’s system of indulgences in Medieval times – a system that allowed people to “buy” forgiveness for their sins by making donations to the Church. They argue that there’s a wide variance among carbon offsetting groups, none of them are regulated and there’s no way to know for sure that the trees you’re paying to plant wouldn’t be planted anyway.

Now I’m not interested in buying forgiveness or polishing my image, and I don’t really care if the amount of carbon I’m generating is translated precisely into the right number of trees. I am, however, interested in minimizing my impact while promoting social change. So when I learned that The Farm in Tennessee had set up a system allowing donations to be used to plant trees at the Marda Permaculture Farm, I decided to go that route. I trust the judgment of the folks at The Farm, which has been a leader in promoting sustainable living around the globe for decades; and I also know quite a bit about the Marda project.

Although I don’t know them directly, I have a personal relationship the Marda Permaculture Farm because my sister Tami Brunk is a co-founder. She worked with founder Murad Alkufash to establish the organization, eventually traveling to Marda. She has shared with me much about the group’s work over the years, not just in terms of supplying much-needed food security but in building resilience and hope in the Palestinian territories, where those elusive qualities are so desperately needed.

So, having decided on where I wanted to put my money, I did my own calculations with the help of The Farm’s Trees for Airmiles page and
Geobyte’s City Distance Tool to calculate my mileage: Flying from St. Louis to Mexico City via Dallas racked up 1,481 miles; multiply that by 1.9 as Carbon Footprint suggests and you get 2,813 miles. Then I did a rough calculation of what I think the next two months will look like: Mexico City to Guadalajara to Nayarit to Guadalajara to Mexico City, then down to Cuernavaca, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chiapas and Quintana Roo before heading over into Belize. All of that comes, very roughly, to about 2,793 miles.

Put it all together, and that comes to about 5,606 miles for the two months or so that I’ll need for Mexico. Using The Farm’s calculation of 1 tree per 5,000 for plane travel, and 1 tree per 1,100 miles for car travel (though I’ll mostly be traveling by bus, which should have a considerably lower impact), and I figured I’m more than covered at $10 a month, which will plant 30 trees this year.

I don’t know if it’s enough or too much. But at least I’m trying – and so are the folks in Marda. As I see it, that can only be a good thing.

What are your thoughts and experiences on the subject of carbon offsets? Please share in the comment section below.

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  1. I didn’t seriously question carbon offsets until reading that none other than Mr. Gaia Hypothesis himself James Lovelock began questioning them. Since, I want to know a lot about what the offset is for and how it is audited. The utility program I am participating in, is third-party audited to make sure that only one customer is credited with wind power watts. I believe there are probably well-intentioned programs that don’t accomplish much, or are not rigorously audited. I think it is a good idea to understand what you are giving money to, and realize that it does not, in fact, give you a medieval pardon for polluting the planet, but does promote something in the world that is positive. That being said, I’m continuing to participate in my utility program, and preserving and growing trees on my own land, and other such measures too many to mention.

    Of course there is the class issue. If you have enough money to even consider a carbon offset, you are in a certain economic class. Many people in the world cannot even consider such a measure, can barely pay for what power/travel/or fossil fuel heat they get now. Nor can a struggling small business person in tough times consider them, even if they do live well.

    Lovelock says we’ve changed the planet in irrevocable ways – from development to overfishing to carbon, and it is forever changed. We are faced with learning how to adapt, and bring the biosphere along with us in that adaptation. We can’t put it back like it was. The hopeful news is, we are just beginning to be aware of what we must do to make this adaptation as a species and as a planet.

    1. Lovelock is right about many things, of course – and I have great esteem for him but I think people can use common sense and a multifaceted approach. Carbon offsets can be one of those approaches; conservation can and must be, as well.

  2. The discussion of carbon offsets is quite timely. I’ve read through and followed your logic, and it seems to me that you are making an appropriate choice.

    This said, I still question offsets, especially when they are used not simply for individuals to offset their impacts, but by large corporate polluters seeking to avoid having to reduce their emissions.

    The issue is complicated, to be sure, but it seems that many of the projects that are being included as eligible for offsets either aren’t really reducing emissions (and in some cases actually increase them), or would have been done anyway (or really need to be done anyway) and thus don’t take the place of real reductions in the CO2 output of industrialized economies.

    If we end up with a cap and trade system–an idea I’m not sold on–how we deal with offsets will be a key variable in determining whether or not the system actually meets its goals. From the various experts I’ve been following, I come away pretty well convinced that the more offsets you allow into the system, the less likely you’ll get the results you’re looking for. There’s a pretty good discussion on this, as well as cap and trade in general at:

    One other concern is that when you calculate the value of an offset–not its monetary value, but rather its carbon-reducing value–you have to do some kind of life cycle analysis. If the project you are using to offset your travel, for instance, is planting trees, you have to look at how much CO2 the trees will sequester over their lifetimes, a matter of decades. The problem is that the CO2 emissions you are aiming to offset are taking place NOW, in January 2010. But the sequestration won’t even start in any serious fashion for a few years, until the trees get big enough to really start putting some carbon away, and the full impact won’t be felt for decades. And, as you note, there is always the question: wouldn’t these trees have been planted anyway, or something similar done on that land that would capture carbon, sometime over the coming years?

    So for me, while I support your decision, Tracy, I would hate for folks to extrapolate and come to the conclusion that carbon offsets make for good public policy.