By John Hilke
This month’s Notes for Earth visits an ongoing controversy over purchase of carbon offsets (or greenhouse gas emissions more generally).  Carbon offsets involve donating funds that target reductions in carbon emissions.  Typically, carbon offsets involve preservation or expansion of carbon absorption areas (rain forests, for example) or investments in projects that will lead to reduction in carbon emissions from electricity generation, agricultural, or manufacturing processes.

There are two major controversies about carbon offsets.  The first controversy concerns the net benefits of different types of carbon offset investments.  Generally, it is best to support carbon offset programs that have been certified by a third-party certification organization. Historically, many carbon offset programs were ineffective, misleading, or fraudulent.

The second controversy concerns the ethical implications of carbon offsets.  Some have compared carbon offsets to indulgences — simply an excuse to keep on sinning — but with less guilt. An alternative to carbon offsets is to live a carbon-neutral (zero net carbon emissions) lifestyle.  Given existing technology, costs, and work or family obligations, few people outside of the tropics have been able or willing to live a life with zero net carbon emissions. For some, the best practical and ethical alternative appears to be taking the steps you can to reduce your carbon footprint and then voluntarily tax yourself to offset the remainder of your carbon emissions (and perhaps some of those of the wider community).

For many people, air travel may be the largest component of your carbon emissions in some years.  Unlike many sources of carbon emissions, suppliers of airline services have become quite active in offering trip-specific carbon offset programs and some airlines offer access to their carbon offset programs more generally.  If this is your situation, you might want to consider the airline carbon offset programs.

I have found the linked review of airline carbon offset programs to be helpful.  Perhaps you will find it informative as well.  My personal reaction is that carbon offsets are surprisingly affordable — which, naturally raises troubling questions about why society has not made more of these investments.   For a more general assessment of your carbon footprint, you can check out several different calculators by searching on your browser for “carbon footprint calculators.”  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency still offers a carbon footprint calculator at

John Hilke for WUUC’s Advocates for Social Justice Climate Justice Ministry, Wendy Condrat, Chair.