Under the terms of the United Nations' ten-year old climate change agreement known as the Kyoto Protocol, a majority of the world's industrialized nations are working to shrink their carbon footprints by reducing the carbon dioxide emissions they produce by burning of fossil fuels, because CO2 emissions are changing the Earth's climate. Now, dozens of private companies are getting consumers involved in a similar effort to offset their carbon footprints.
When Eric and Melissa Cavanaugh got married last month, they wanted to make their wedding carbon-free. "We realize that as much as we try in our everyday life, with our recycling, with our use of mass transit, being at a wedding creates more of a carbon footprint than our daily lives do."
The Cavanaughs turned to a company called Carbonfund.org, www.carbonfund.org one of a growing number of firms that charge a fee to "offset" your carbon emissions.
The company directs its funds to carbon-cutting projects like tree planting and renewable energy applications. Eric Cavanaugh says he used Carbonfund.org's online calculator to determine the carbon load their wedding would be putting on the environment, and how much they needed the company to offset. "We were able to put in the number of guests, the number of hotel stays, the percentage who were flying, how many people were driving, etc. etc."
The wedding offset added up to 8 tons, at the bargain price of $3.50 per ton, but the Cavanaughs says they contributed much more.
CarbonFund.org is part of a $55 million industry that in 2006 offset 14.8 billion tons of CO2 emissions.
Eric Carlson heads CarbonFund.org, which, unlike some of its competitors, is run as a non-profit. He says the business attracts consumers who want to make more than simple lifestyle changes like installing compact fluorescent light bulbs and energy efficient appliances. "We wanted to help people get to zero today, and in doing so, help lead investment in renewable energy and clean technology."
That's why Volkswagen of America and CarbonFund.org joined forces. VW's latest promotion offsets first-year emissions for each new VW sold in the U.S. from September through December. VW spokesman Keith Price says the offer reflects a change in corporate culture. "A year ago at [this] same time, if you bought a brand new [VW] Jetta, we gave you an electric guitar that would plug into the amplifier and sound system of the car. This year we are giving you carbon neutrality."
As part of the deal, VW agreed to put cash into reforestation and is planting a forest in a wetland in Louisiana.
Global warming solved? Not so fast. Some critics argue that offsets foster a false sense that climate change can be easily managed. Eric Carlson with CarbonFund.org says offsets are a good first step, but he also advises consumers to do their homework. "The key question is are these offsets real? Many people say that this is an unregulated market. There are world-class organizations that are certifying and verifying carbon offsets every single day."
CarbonFund.org follows the standards and practices of the Chicago Climate Exchange, whose 350 corporate partners have agreed to reduce, trade and offset greenhouse gas emissions.
Carlson concedes that voluntary offsets can only go so far. He says the effort must be tied to government-regulated caps on industrial carbon emissions. But he says that until those caps are in place, consumer-based offsets can make a difference, especially as the market for these activities grows. "In doing so, by buying so much clean energy and supporting so much clean technology, we will change the market and potentially deal with climate change in a completely market-based way."
That's the route that Eric and Melissa Cavanaugh took when they exchanged marriage vows. "We are committed not only to our future together, but to the future of the planet."