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Flying and Buying Carbon Offsets

We do (almost) everything we can to reduce our emissions. We do our best not to waste food, we buy food that might otherwise be wasted, we subscribe to the green up program with Seattle City Light for renewable electricity, and we heat our house with an electric heat pump

There are a few things that, so far, we haven’t been willing to give up. First, we eat meat. Second, we drive (compact fuel efficient cars, but still). Third, we fly. 

Flying is very difficult to give up because we have family on two other continents and unfortunately there isn’t not a practical way to get there in the short time we Americans get for vacation. One day I dream of early retirement and crossing the country by rail and the ocean by sailboat like Greta Thunberg,and I wish we had a Shinkansen like Japan, but for now, if we want to visit the grandparents, there’s no alternative to long-haul flying. Flying is a major contributor to climate change. An article in Mother Jones cites the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as saying that the greenhouse gas impact of burning jet fuel at high elevations is 2.7 – 5.8x that of the actual emissions. Flying is by far the largest part of my carbon footprint. I have pledged (privately) to fly no more than once a year, and should I find myself with more time, I will replace the first or last leg of my long distance air travel with a train ride. 

For now, if I want to fly but want to mitigate the impact, there’s no alternative to buying carbon offsets. I think of carbon offsets as a way to feel slightly less guilty about doing something that I know is unsustainable and a serious part of the climate problem. The best thing to do is not to fly. The offsets are a distant second-best solution.

The most obvious question about any retail offset program is, is it legit? The thing to look for on any offset program is certification by gold standard, a JV established by several environmental NGOs to evaluate climate friendly projects and allows you to buy specific offsets related to reforestation, renewable electricity generation, clean water projects,and sustainable economic development. These are all laudable goals and may be a good use of your own charitable contributions in addition to a way to reduce the guilt associated with your family vacation.

In the end I visited a site called Native Energy, an Native American run company that includes a carbon footprint calculator and bought offsets tied to a gold standard certified water project in Honduras. This brings clean water to ~1.7k families in Honduras involved in growing coffee (another habit of mine) who would otherwise need to boil their water for it to be safe for consumption.

There is a bit of cynicism attached to carbon offsets, and I sympathize with that. The sustainable level of fossil fuel emissions is pretty close to zero, and we should all strive to get there in our own lives rather than just throwing money at projects to assuage our guilt. Still, sometimes if you want to see the world, there’s no alternative to flying. Let’s just keep it to a minimum. 

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