HOW TO: Become Carbon Neutral

In this article I’ll first show you how to become “carbon neutral”. It takes less then an hour. The rest of the article will go into our research and decisions in more detail. The whole point of the carbonbalancers.com blog is to make this post. (Note that this article is written from the perspective of someone living in North America)

Part 1.

Maybe you have thought about trying to be carbon neutral.  You looked into it but got glassy eyed and dazed from all the different online footprint calculators and it fizzled out there. That’s what happened to my wife and I a few times. But now that we have finally succeeded we wanted to create this simple guide to help people who want to do it – no muss no fuss. It really is easy! So without further ado:

Going Carbon Neutral

Our strategy is this:  Since we are creating carbon dioxide all the time – going neutral is an ongoing process too, so our plan is to reduce our carbon where possible and then at the end of each year to calculate our carbon footprint – (the amount of carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere by our lifestyle) and buy carbon offsets to counterbalance the amount of carbon that we produced. So, to become carbon neutral for the past year:

1. Reduce carbon emissions where possible.
(OK, its too late for the past year already.. but start reducing for next year)

2. (15 – 30 minutes) Calculate your emissions for the past year.
Use the excellent carbon calculator at http://coolclimate.berkeley.edu/ to calculate the number of tonnes of carbon dioxide that your household caused last year and write it down- it will be interesting to track this number each year.

3. (15 minutes) Purchase the carbon offsets to “neutralize” (offset) the carbon dioxide that you produced.
We recommend http://CarbonZero.ca ($22/tonne) because they are highly rated and because their projects are in North America. If you need cheaper offsets, or if you live in the USA you might consider http://www.terrapass.com/business/ ($13/tonne). Both companies are highly rated, with projects focussed on renewable energy, energy efficiency, and methane capture. (We are in no way affiliated with carbonzero.ca or terrapass.com.)

4. (15 minutes) Let people know!
We feel like one of the best ways to make a positive impact is to let other people know what we are doing. Everyone is coming to terms with their new understanding of the danger of climate change. Let them know how easy it is for them to do their part and help end global warming.

Berkely Calculator Summary

Berkely Calculator Summary

Part 2. The Nitty Gritty

Why did we decide to offset our carbon?

My family had been trying to minimize greenhouse gas production and felt like we were doing a pretty good job. Then we saw a very interesting 30 minute video of a talk by MacArthur “genius award” recipient Saul Griffith( http://blip.tv/file/1018152). His talk is compelling because he just starts with some baseline numbers like how much global warming do we feel is acceptable, how much emissions do we get as a planet based on that amount of warming, and then calculates just how much renewable energy systems we will have to install to achieve those goals.

It was the first time that I had seen someone actually DO THE MATH and put it into concrete terms of what action we need to take if we want to keep warming down to 2 degrees or so. And it was stunning. Its just painfully obvious that what the worlds nations have done so far to combat global warming is totally inadequate. Its difficult for the nations to take action with so many pressures from industry and from citizens who don’t yet grasp the seriousness of the climate problem. Here are the slides from the talk with notes – very interesting: http://assets.en.oreilly.com/1/event/8/Energy%20Literacy%20Presentation.pdf

So – taking inspiration from the many US cities that have ratified the Kyoto protocol even though the USA federal government has not, I felt that the least that I could do was to balance my own carbon dioxide emissions.

What do I hope to achieve by being carbon neutral?

  • Adhere to my personal belief of what is right and good: Treat others as you would like to be treated. Creating C02 is warming the planet which is going to have terrible effects for many people. I don’t want that.
  • I’m happy to know that I am helping myself, my children, all people, and all life on the planet.
  • I understand that my contribution is miniscule – but I see it like a vote in an election – everyone has to play their small part.
  • I feel that by being carbon neutral I am setting an example for the people that I know that it is possible (and easy!)
  • To actually stop global warming, I am certain that nations will have to create laws to limit the creation of C02. (Ideally a tax on greenhouse gas production) There is no other way. Individuals going carbon neutral is not enough. But I believe that individuals going carbon neutral will send a strong signal to the government that people understand the problem and support the tough legislation that needs to be made.

Are offsets really a good idea?

Not everyone thinks offsets are a good idea – they argue that offsets give people an “out” to create as much CO2 as they like. i.e.: “I don’t have to worry about limiting driving or flying because I can just by offsets”. I totally agree with that, for me offsets are a way to make up for what you cannot reduce via lifestyle change.

Another argument against offsets is that it lets governments off the hook – “Look the citizens are offsetting, we don’t need to do anything” Personally, I just don’t see that happening – I think personal offsets will rather encourage governments to do what they know is right but fear industry and citizens will not support.

But it should be understood that offsets are not THE solution to global warming – they are a tool to help us on the path. Currently carbon offsets are an excellent mechanism that stimulates the construction of solar power stations, wind farms, improving the insulation of buildings, creating methane capture systems at landfills and farms and planting forests – and ultimately reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses, or preventing them from being created in the first place.

Details on the four steps

1. Reduce carbon emissions where possible.
To really reduce your emissions, its best to look at the actions that actually create the most emissions. One reason for doing this is to prevent “spinning your wheels” taking a lot of action, expending a lot of effort – but not really accomplishing that much. Each individual will have to decide just how much of their lifestyle they can adjust or change.

It’s a strange time for humanity, we have grown accustomed to a luxurious lifestyle and it’s a difficult concept that we are currently living too large. Our lifestyle seems normal, everybody around us is doing it. Its hard to limit yourself when your coworkers, friends and neighbors maintaining a high carbon life. But the simple fact is that we are using up the atmosphere – changes need to be made – and we each have an opportunity to lead the way.

Things my family is doing (In the context of living in an apartment building in a dense city, Vancouver BC):

  • At most one international flight every 2 years.
  • At most one continental flight every year.
  • Avoid car use where possible. Otherwise carpool. (pretty easy for us as we live in a dense city)
  • Bike or walk where possible. Otherwise bus / public transit.
  • Eat mostly vegetarian. (Meat production is very energy and resource intensive!)
  • Buy less products – and when buying something – try to find it used i.e. from a friend, craigslist.com, salvation army. (Creating objects uses a lot of energy) Try to repair something instead of getting a new one.
  • Buy local produce and food where possible.
  • Use a drying rack instead of a clothes dryer. (Its more convenient in some ways if you live in an apartment – less waiting and scheduling)
  • Heat your home and work only as much as necesary – try to dress warmly first. (Same goes for cooling!)
  • Recycle where possible.
  • Turn off lights when not in use.
  • Turn off computer AND turn off powerstrip when not in use.
  • Take short showers. Turn off water in shower when lathering. (OK this ones a bit hardcore for me – not sure if its worth it. )

2. Calculate your emissions for the past year.
We found two excellent emissions calculators.
http://coolclimate.berkeley.edu/
http://www.nature.org/initiatives/climatechange/calculator/

We used both calculators and got 12 tonnes from one of them and 14 tonnes from the other – a pretty good match.

We consider them good for a number of reasons. They show you how much of your total carbon is produced by what activities, this helps you learn where you can reduce the most emissions next year. They show you how your emissions compare to the USA national average and to the world average. They are also very detailed which helps you understand what activities cause or reduce emissions.

To compare different modes of transportation (plane, bus, train, car) , this is a nifty simple little calculator:
http://www.transportdirect.info/web2/JourneyPlanning/JourneyEmissionsCompare.aspx

Here are some of the sites that we used to find and compare carbon calculators:
http://atmoz.org/blog/2008/06/20/top-5-carbon-footprint-calculators/
http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/climate-change/stories/the-15-best-carbon-calculators
http://www.climatebiz.com/resources/resource/a-comparison-carbon-calculators
http://hes.lbl.gov/hes/carbon-calculators.html

3. Purchase the carbon offsets to “neutralize” (offset) the carbon dioxide that you produced.
We recommend http://CarbonZero.ca ($22/tonne) because they are highly rated and because their projects are in North America. (We live in North America) If you need cheaper offsets, or if you live in the USA you might consider http://www.terrapass.com/business/ ($13/tonne) (We are in no way affiliated with carbonzero.ca or terrapass.com.)

This was a tough one. Its really sketchy to just choose a website and throw money at it and hope that they actually do something with it! Our breakthrough came when a local newspaper wrote about a new guide from the awesome and very respected David Suzuki Foundation which rated carbon offset providers: http://www.davidsuzuki.org/publications/reports/2009/purchasing-carbon-offsets/ . Its about 60 pages and very informative. It boils the comparison results down to one table on page 10.

Our recommendations are derived from the ranking in this guide. (We found only one other comparison online and it was from 2006 :http://www.cleanair-coolplanet.org/ConsumersGuidetoCarbonOffsets.pdf ) A key thing to know about this guide is that offsetters with forestation projects are not ranked very well. There is a risk that planted trees will not stay planted, they could burn – or be afflicted by a pine beetle or other insect or disease. Its difficult to measure how much carbon trees absorb, and difficult to measure the total benefit (or harm) from a project  – for example if land was cleared to plant the forest!

A decision to make when choosing an offsetter is where the offsetting projects are located – locally or internationally. There are good reasons to choose both kinds of projects. But we suggest offsetters with local projects because we feel we should clean up our own mess first, also we feel that the big emitters such as USA and Canada need to set an example by dealing with our own carbon emissions if we are to have a meaningful dialog with up-and-coming emitters like China and India.

I’ll note that the Suzuki guide has received some flak from the companies that did not rate that well which is worth reading:
http://corporate.zerofootprint.net/category/david-suzuki-foundation-pembina-institute/
http://www.carbonfund.org/site/more/media/1575

4. Let people know!
People behave based on what they feel is normal or accepted behaviour, that is by what they see people around them doing. This is what makes it so hard to conserve or limit our lifestyle when we see others who are not.
But by the same token, this is the key to changing the perception of people around us: Show them that people aren’t waiting for laws anymore, they are taking action to end global warming by going carbon neutral.

It’s a fine line. I don’t want to go overboard and be too preachy. But I think that a lot of people don’t really get it yet that they can do something meaningful to end global warming.

Make a “Carbon Neutral 2008” T-shirt!
Put it in your email signature.
Post it on your social network pages or blog.
Put a bumper sticker on your car.
Tell your friends.
Really important in the coming weeks if you are in the US – Call your Senate representative! The government must take action to limit carbon and the cap and trade bill is a good start.

Good luck and have fun!

Please comment on this article. If you would like to contribute to this blog – for example posting how you got Carbon Balanced please get in touch.

We did it! Carbon Neutral (as best we can) for 2008.

Finally.  It was one thing to decide (amidst new years festivities) to try to offset our carbon footprint for 2008.  And now 8 months later we actually managed to do it. Not that we spent THAT much time – but sometimes its hard to fit another thing in, specially when its two people trying to coordinate, specially when you have a 1 year old kid to take care of too.

But the time we did spend was mostly in researching. The actual doing part of it is an hour or maybe half an hour. So we thought it would be cool to share our choices and hopefully make it easier for people like you, dear reader, to go ahead and get carbon neutral.