Polar Bears International

12/17/2013 10:34:58 PM

Offsetting My Holiday Travel

By Kathryn Foat, PBI staff member

Earlier this year, I calculated our household's carbon footprint with the help of the EPA carbon calculator. We've made many permanent changes to our home, such as replacing our old appliances with Energy Star products. We also conducted a home energy audit and completed the recommendations. And we've made behavioral changes that have become habits, like taking shorter showers and turning the thermostat up or down by 10 degrees, depending on the season. On average, our day-to-day carbon footprint (27,151 tons per year) is below the U.S. average (41,500 tons per year).

Just when I was starting to feel a little too proud of that number, I added in our airline flights. Our extended family is widely distributed, so we fly relatively frequently to see nieces and nephews graduate from college or get married—important life events. I also take the occasional work-related trip and maybe a vacation. By taking all those trips (both flights and by car), I discovered we contribute an additional 20,000-30,000 pounds of carbon to the atmosphere every year!

As the holidays approach, I'm getting ready to fly again, this time out to Kansas to visit my dad. I want to start offsetting the carbon cost of my travel, but how? I started to research the topic and, once again, have found that it's very difficult to find an easy solution. This is what I've learned in my journey:

First, I found confirmation that my overall approach is correct: you should start by reducing your carbon emissions and then offset the remaining balance. Because our economy is still based on burning fossil fuels, it's very difficult to reach zero carbon emissions, but individuals can still make a big impact by saving energy.

The next step is to calculate your emissions. I stick with CO2 even though we produce other greenhouse gases to get a "close enough" result. Identify your weak spots and make adjustments.

For us, the weakness is flying. I'm not going to miss the major life events of my family, so that means I need to do offsets. I need to stop procrastinating and pick a solution, one that may change in the future. In fact, I hope it does—I hope that it gets easier to find carbon offsets and eventually power my travel with alternative energy sources. For now, I use a combination of offsets:

• Planting trees - We still have a few more places in our yard where we can plant trees and bushes (getting the added benefit of providing wildlife habitat or a local food source for us at the same time).

• Supporting a nonprofit that reduces CO2 and benefits locals - Purchasing a biogas stove for families in third world countries not only provides them with an alternative and green energy source, but prevents them from harvesting firewood from local forests or using a carbon-based fuel source.

• Supporting green energy solutions - This suggestion has regional implications. First, you need to know where your power company gets its energy. Then, check to see if it offers an option for you to purchase green energy. It may be that you can purchase blocks of green energy versus the expense of shifting your entire home energy bill to green energy. I don't have this option where I live, although it came up in a search for other energy providers.

I recently read an article that stated that we could make a significant difference by 2020 in the greenhouse gas pollution problem if each of us did more of what we are already doing. Case in point: we have one last component to complete in our home energy audit—replacing our single pane windows with Energy Star. We're working on finding replacement windows and a contractor (another blog topic about the challenges of overcoming information barriers on that!) to install them after the first of the year. The impact, according to the EPA carbon calculator I mentioned above: we will save 7,039 pounds of carbon per year, making our new average 21,112!

I can't think of a better way to start out the new year.  

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