A green-living advocate since she was a child, Karen Luby tries hard to minimize her carbon footprint.
The 24-year-old uses compact fluorescent lightbulbs in her Lakeview apartment, rejects air conditioning and turns off her power strips to save energy.
She rarely drives, she carries her groceries home in cloth tote bags and drinks from a refillable water bottle so as not to waste plastic.
Yet as diligently as Luby recycles and buys organic cleaning products, her carbon footprintthe amount of greenhouse gases she personally emits through her lifestyleswells with her carbon Achilles heel: flying to visit family and friends scattered around the globe.
"[Air travel is] definitely the weak point in my efforts to live green," Luby said.
But it doesn't have to be a permanent stain on Luby's green record.
Increasingly, environmentally conscious Americans are paying to theoretically erase their inevitable contributions to global warming by purchasing carbon offsets onlinespurring a new, free-for-all industry that several environmentalists have termed the Wild West.
More than three dozen companies and organizations sell voluntary carbon offsets, wherein people calculate their carbon footprint and then pay a corresponding amount of money that is used to fund projects that will reduce carbon emissions by the same amount elsewhere. For example, the average American might pay $210 to offset the 21 tons of carbon dioxide he or she emits in a year, assuming an average price of $10 per ton. That money could go to reducing 21 tons of CO2 elsewhere through building a renewable energy wind turbine in Arizona, for example, or planting trees in Africa (trees sequester carbon dioxide).
With even the greenest among us unavoidably emitting carbon dioxide, one of six greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, offsets are a helpful way to compensate because they funnel money to carbon-reducing projects that wouldn't get that money otherwise, proponents say.
But critics argue offsetting can be a cop-out and worry that the unregulated industry, around since the 1990s, can't guarantee that people's money will have the advertised environmental impact. Two Republican congressmen, Tom Davis of Virginia and Darrell Issa of California, have asked the Government Accounting Office to conduct an inquiry into the carbon-offset industry and are considering legislation to protect consumers.
Carbon offsets have skyrocketed in popularity in the last couple of years, riding the wave of global-warming awareness propelled by Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" and a UN report that concluded humans are largely responsible for climate change. The voluntary offset market grew 200 percent between 2005 and 2006, with some 23.7 million tons of greenhouse gases transacted last year, and 2007 is expected to see at least double that amount, according to a report released in July by San Francisco-based Ecosystem Marketplace.
To some environmentalists, however, a gas-guzzling SUV sporting a "carbon neutral" (reducing your carbon footprint to zero) bumper sticker seems more ironic than productivea way to pay your way out of environmental guilt.
Though he's not against offsetting, Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club's Illinois Chapter, said people would do better for the environment and themselves if they changed their carbon lifestyle rather than throw money at it. For example, get rid of that SUV, he suggests, and take advantage of the $1,000 rebate the state gives you when you buy a hybrid.
"The benefits of offsetting are mostly psychic; you want to feel that you're doing your part," Darin said. "I think you'll find so much more psychic satisfaction and realize more cash savings if you just reduce your carbon usage."
Jen McGraw, climate change program manager for the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology, said offsets are a good way to help the environment after you've tried to reduce your actual carbon emissions as much as possible by buying a fuel-efficient car, flying less and keeping your home well insulated.
"Offsets are a reasonable choice for things you can't reduce," McGraw said.
Aside from the ethical debate, there are practical concerns about whether carbon offsets really work.How can you know exactly how much carbon you emit? And how do you know that the money you pay will save the planet from that same amount of carbon?
You can't know exactly, because the science isn't exact, said Bill Schleizer, an associate at Chicago-based Delta Institute, a sustainable development group.
Each offset organization uses a different carbon footprint calculator, yielding varying footprint results. Some include layovers in their air travel calculations, for example, while some don't. The organizations also charge different amounts to offset carbonfrom as little as $5 per ton to as much as $25 per tonbecause the cost of reducing a ton of carbon, an inexact concept in itself, varies depending on the project.
"It's not like going to the store and picking out the shoes that look the best," Schleizer said. "What you're buying is really abstract, so it's hard to know that what you're buying is really quality."The industry is developing standards to steer people to high-quality offsets.
This year, the San Francisco-based Center for Resource Solutions, which operates the Green-e certification program for renewable energy projects, plans to roll out a certification program for offsets so consumers know the offset they're buying meets certain standards and will make an environmental difference, said Jeff Swenerton, the Center's communications director.
For Terry Jones, 32, who lives on the Lower West Side near Bridgeport, the uncertainty of a carbon offset's impact is one reason not to buy them. Jones has a relatively large carbon footprint, mostly because of the multiple long-distance vacations he takes every year.
"I wouldn't be willing to [offset my carbon emissions] until we were able to get definitive calculations concerning what it actually does to the environment," Jones said.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times