Offsetting my carbon footprint
Updated: Nov 10, 2020
In the sixties and seventies, I wasn’t much of a hippy, nor was I that caught up with protestors then busy paving the way to new civil liberties and ending the war in Vietnam. I focussed on school and friends, and the new personal freedoms of the times. Optimism characterized the times.
The eighties and nineties brought marriage, kids, mortgages, and luckily, steady work. It seemed every minute was precious, and conveniences were necessary. I did not worry about niceties like my environmental impact. Weren’t others already working on that?
The new millennium brought an end to child-rearing, less everyday bustle, and more time for hobbies, relaxation, and reflection. As our family now grows into having grandchildren, I want to do something meaningful to help the generations to come.
In the sixties and seventies, the earliest warnings appeared: first of species going extinct attributed to pollution and then rising global warming predictions from the greenhouse effect.
In the eighties and nineties, there were environmental successes: stopping DDT that was killing off bald eagles, reducing smokestack emissions that caused acid rain, and eliminating CFHCs that were creating holes in the ozone. Countries generally were working reportedly together and moving forward with initial climate change talks. Being optimistic seemed reasonable.
Since 2000, the mood has darkened. Al Gore has warned in his book An Inconvenient Truth that continuously rising levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) are accelerating global warming. If warming reaches a certain tipping point, natural methane reserves, etc. may be released in quantities that accelerate warming far beyond our control. Storms continue to grow in severity; species continue to migrate or deplete, and glaciers recede. Meanwhile, countries have barely agreed to minimal CO2 targets, let alone found a way to meet them.
Concrete action to fix the situation appears either too minuscule or too experimental and is exceptionally political in today’s atmosphere of mistrust. Seven billion people are at risk, and all of us must make changes, or we will continue to both cause and experience harm. Pessimism now seems appropriate, perhaps even desperation. We need hope.
One of the new solutions is Carbon Offsets. Basically, carbon offsets are the negation of CO2 being added to the atmosphere by a corresponding reduction of CO2. In effect, carbon dioxide created is offset by carbon dioxide captured. Carbon offsets sound like something I could support, so I started to investigate.
I wondered first how much atmospheric CO2 I personally have caused. Statistics vary, but rough calculations estimate every Canadian puts about twenty tons of CO2 per year into the air. Wealthier individuals consume more, travel more, and thus contribute more GHGs. So to be conservative, a guess might be that I have sent up closer to twenty-five to thirty tons per year.
Since I came of age in 1972, I am responsible for roughly 1,200 tons of CO2. The goal set at the Paris Climate Change Talks is to bring CO2 back to 1980 levels. Removing my 1,200 tons and offsetting on-going emissions of twenty tons every year would achieve that for me. Looking back, my wife and I and our three children until they became adults, have emitted a total of 3,900 tons of CO2.
Now with a general CO2 reduction target in mind, what can I, or anyone, do to offset CO2?
The answer leads into somewhat murky waters. Carbon offsets as entities vary by method, location, timing, cost, optionality, incrementality, readiness, and validity. Each of these issues has pros and cons for each offset method, so controversy has grown.
Offsets are so controversial they have even been compared to the seventeenth-century practice of buying purgatory pardons sold by the Catholic Church. The inference is that while offsets may make you feel less guilty, they may do nothing to fix the problem. Or put another way, you may continue to spew into the environment as long as you buy an offset.
But wouldn’t that be what a carbon cycle should be, or actually is, i.e., the creation and capture of CO2 in equal balance? If we could capture carbon faster than we create it, would we not have a mechanism to restore the CO2 equilibrium, and even, excluding other issues, allow for fossil fuel consumption to continue or also grow?
Solar, wind, hydro, and farming practices are among the top carbon offset projects, often in developing countries.
Personally, I like planting trees as a way of storing carbon: it’s understandable, immediate, and can be local. We can plant trees now to buy time while we develop new, more efficient technologies. At the end of their CO2 absorption life, products from trees can be used in ways that do not return carbon to the atmosphere.
Tree Canada quotes six dollars per tree to plant Douglas Firs in the BC Coastal Region. For twenty tons of carbon offset, I must purchase thirty-one trees. This is a total cost of $372 for my wife and me, for forty tones, each year. Looking at the 3,900 tons backlog to date, we’d have a grand total deficit of $36,270 for the family back to 1980. Not a nice bill to be sure, but not bankrupting either.
However, trees do not consume CO2 evenly over their life. Trees should be cut down between twenty to fifty years of age when CO2 absorption levels off. Each of my thirty-one trees, therefore, must consume 1,290 lbs of atmospheric CO2 over thirty-five years, or about thirty-seven pounds per year, per tree. At that rate, though I create forty thousand pounds of CO2, my thirty-one trees only offset 3.2% of the CO2 emitted.
Unless I buy thirty-five years of trees worth right away, I will still be adding CO2 to the air each year. The cost of capturing forty thousand pounds right away is $186 times thirty-five, or $6,510 per person. The good news is this one payment lasts for thirty-five years.
I wondered just how fast carbon offsets sell annually around the globe. One report from Mongabay stated that for the ten years ending in 2014, a global total of $4.5 Billion was spent on voluntary offsets. With all that is at stake, this is only sixty-five cents per person. Current spending is almost nothing, just one tree per person every ten years.
For Canada to meet 1980 levels by 2030, we pledged to reduce our emissions by forty-four percent. Trudeau has already budgeted $2.6 Billion. By my calculations, assuming the same efficiency as trees, this target requires another $4.8 Billion more per year in offsets. Sounds huge, but really is not. It’s only $165 of trees per Canadian adult each year for 14 years or about 0.8% tax increase. Rounding error!
Climate change is such a serious issue and will cause increasing disaster recovery costs. The carbon offset money spent would boost our economy, while Canada showed great leadership, saving our place on this planet.