Choosing the right company for your carbon offsets

According to Carbonfund, with the amount of flying I do annually, I “produce” about 21,000 pounds of CO2 per year. If I want to make up for the environmental damage I’ve done, I can pay $125 to offset my carbon contribution.

But what does that really mean? How can paying $125 make the air cleaner or the ozone layer stronger? Where does that $125 go? Am I just paying to make myself feel better?

Well, as I’m learning, it all depends on which company you choose. Some seem to be more transparent than others about where your money goes, and some seem to offer more assurance in the way of third-party auditing. Two that I have found that seem to be among the most reputable are and TerraPass. Both take the money you pay for your carbon offsets and invest it into projects that help reduce pollution, produce clean air and alternative sources of energy, and reduce the effects of carbon-producing technology.

Carbonfund, the company your money will go to if you choose to buy offsets for your next Virgin America flight, contributes to three major undertakings: renewable energy and methane projects, energy efficiency and carbon credits, and reforestation and avoided deforestation projects. According to their website, each project is audited and certified by a third party. The money they receive goes to projects that help offset the damage being done not just from planes, but from all the other carbon-producing technology we use on a daily basis – trains, buses, cars, and home appliances.

With Carbonfund, you can pay for all your environmental sins at once, or calculate more precisely based on a single flight. They also seem to offer very affordable options. If 20 or so flights per year and 12 months of living in a small apartment and riding the city buses and trains only costs me $125, I’m betting a single flight can’t be over $20.

Some of the projects to which Carbonfund contributes include those that: reduce the emissions produced by large transport trucks while they idle at rest stops, protect tropical rainforest land, restore hardwood forests, generate clean electricity from farm waste, and destroy methane produced by landfills.

TerraPass, the offset option offered by Expedia, funds some similar projects. Their big three are wind energy, farm power, and landfill gas capture. Like Carbonfund, their programs are audited and verified by a third party. When you register your flight, your life, your wedding (yes, weddings leave a very large carbon footprint) or your business, you’ll get a total price and also see where that money will be spent and how it will help offset the emissions you have produced. TerraPass seems to be a bit more expensive for me though. It cost more like $150 to combat my yearly output and a single flight (Chicago to CapeTown) was nearly $50. I did, however, really like that they had a comprehensive report published on their website, which listed how much carbon each project reduced over the course of a year.

I also appreciated that both websites make it a point to say that purchasing carbon offsets doesn’t give you a free pass to live a wasteful live. Both promote that, in addition to buying carbon offsets, you should also strive to reduce your carbon footprint by using less electricity, taking public transportation, flying direct when possible, and using alternative sources of energy when you can.

Whether you go with one of these two companies or another, be sure that it is independently audited and verified and that it offers information on where and how your money will be spent. While you can’t chose a specific project, you can often choose what type of project your money funds. Choosing a company that is audited by a third party helps you be sure that your money is going where you think it is, and ensures that companies aren’t selling the same offset credits more than once.

In an age where we seem to be nickle-and-dimed to death by the airlines, it’s difficult to think of voluntarily coughing up another $10-$50 per flight. But this money isn’t going to the airlines. It’s not lining the pockets of some corporate honchos. When invested correctly, it seems it really can make a difference in the fight against climate change.