Could you be carbon neutral?

After weeks of rain in the hill country, the smell of burning firewood and baking ovens is a new staple in our neighborhood. The weather does not really turn cold here until February but we like to take our cool weather where we can get it. This time of year is around the time where we hit the carbon cycle and climate change unit in my class. All of my students calculate their carbon footprint for their household, making an audit of their emissions, from waste to transportation. This year, in a very round about way, I was able to donate some store credit I had received to a carbon offset company. That got me thinking about one question, how hard would it really be to become carbon neutral?

Above is my household carbon emissions calculated on the EPA website.

Above is my household carbon emissions calculated on the EPA website.

The first thing anyone will tell you to do is calculate your emissions. I live in a 2 person household, we have a 1000 sq foot apartment that is relatively new. The weather in Austin is incredibly mild in the winter so we often spend about 2 months without using the heat or AC. All of that contributes to us having a really low household energy total. When it comes to transportation we still score below average, but we both work in the county and commute about 15 miles one way to work. The only thing that keeps our transportation low is the fact that we can carpool most days of the week. Finally our waste footprint is tiny, simply because Austin is on the leading edge of the quantity of household items you can recycle. Way to go!

Now that you have numbers, then what? Well for everything, you need a reference point. What should your carbon footprint be, and how can you get there.

graphic co2.JPG

With only an ounce of effort into research, anyone can find out that American households have some of the largest carbon footprints in the world. While a country like China emits more CO2 by far than the USA, their individual household footprint is about 7.5 tons. A study by an MIT class found that when you factor in city infrastructure into the average American household, a homeless person in the USA still emits about 8.5 tons per year.

While states like California are doing their part at the governmental level to cut emissions from energy production, what can you do to offset your emissions? It is unlikely that our household will be able to lower our carbon footprint more without a serious financial investment, or a job location change. Our only real option is to purchase carbon offsets from somewhere else.

First off let me tell you how carbon offsets do not work with a helpful drawn info-graphic below.

This is not how carbon offsets work, even though it would be super cool if it did.

This is not how carbon offsets work, even though it would be super cool if it did.

The sad news is that there is no company that exists in which you can pay off your carbon footprint. The way carbon offset works is that you pay money to a company or organization, and they invest your money in either green technology or forestry. There are industrial carbon capture programs but they are primarily exist to capture emissions from power plants not simply from the atmosphere. There exists also such thing as a carbon credit and exchange but it is mostly available in Europe, and there is enough information on it for another entire blog post.

Choosing the forestry approach

You can pay money to an organization equal to that of your emissions, and they will plant trees to offset your carbon. First off there is literally nothing wrong with planting more trees. That investment is something that will always pay off. However, don’t look at this approach as a 1:1 for your carbon footprint. The trees planted in your name will take upwards of 10 years before they are effectively storing large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. Along with that, these organizations operate all over the world and it is hard to be sure that the trees planted in your name will survive upwards of 10 years or more. Go ahead and donate your money to these organizations, but consider making a cash donation to a local group that is planting trees in your city. This way you can visibly see the benefits of your investment, and even possibly volunteer.

Choosing the green technology approach

This option is not 1:1 with your carbon emissions but it will invest in a greener more efficient future. You can choose to go about this a few different ways but in each situation you are investing in a future that will one day be fossil free.

Stocks: Use your favorite investment website to invest in portfolios that feature green energy. This option has the possibility that your investment will not only pay off with new technology, but move the needle when it comes to creating a fossil free future. Checkout this article on Motley Fool about investing in green energy stocks.

3 Ways to Invest in a Renewable Energy Future -- The Motley Fool

While Apple stole headlines this summer, becoming the first company to reach a $1 trillion market cap, the renewable energy industry celebrated a different milestone beginning with the letter "t." According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), global capacity for solar and wind power generation has exceeded 1 terawatt.

Donations: several non profit organizations will use your donation to invest in energy infrastructure in developing countries. These countries have the most opportunity to invest in green technology because they are often not already committed to an energy type. The nonprofit Everybody solar is trying to bring solar panels to other nonprofits to create energy independence.

We have discussed the “how” but not the why yet. Should you attempt to offset your carbon footprint, even if it is not very successful at the moment? Yes, this is not a question of if you have the money or not, a 1$ donation is more than 0 and will move us one step forward to changing our future of climate change.