U.S. offers a way to ease carbon guilt

Times Staff Writer

You take public transportation to work, use energy-saving lightbulbs and turn off the air conditioner when you’re not home -- but still you feel somewhat guilty that your lifestyle isn’t totally pollution-free.

The federal government may have an answer for you.

For years, companies have been allowed to compensate for greenhouse gas emissions by purchasing “carbon offsets” -- vouchers for investment in alternative energy sources, tree-planting and other projects that can mitigate global warming.

Now the idea is spreading to individuals, with the Forest Service’s announcement Wednesday that it will be the first federal agency to offer personal carbon offsets through an initiative called the Carbon Capital Fund.


“We came up with the idea because everyone is looking at what they can do in terms of climate change,” said Bill Possiel, president of the National Forest Foundation, a nonprofit partner of the Forest Service. “The money goes to a restricted fund for projects on national forests.”

Trees and forests are “carbon sinks,” Possiel said, because they draw carbon dioxide -- the main greenhouse gas blamed for global warming -- out of the atmosphere and store it for long periods of time.

The Forest Service, an agency within the Agriculture Department, estimates that the 155 forests it oversees absorb 10% to 15% of the nation’s carbon emissions and that planting through the new initiative will increase that amount.

Under the program, individuals can use a “carbon calculator” at to figure out the size of their carbon footprint. Then, they can buy offsets at $6 per metric ton of carbon dioxide. An average family of four is responsible for 19 to 30 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, so the offsets would cost $114 to $180.

“People have an opportunity to contribute to the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests not only by countering climate change, but also by replanting forests for the benefit of future generations,” Forest Service chief Gail Kimbell said in announcing the initiative.

There are other programs that allow individuals to purchase carbon offsets, but environmentalists have criticized them for insufficient regulation and lack of proof of the funds’ use. That’s not the case with the Forest Service program, Possiel said.

“We have third-party verification, a company that looks at our calculations but also does on-site verification,” he said. “A lot of programs have verifications through computer models. The important component for us is the ground truth.”

Possiel said that almost all of the money would go to a restricted fund for planting trees, improving native wildlife habitat, and restoring land damaged by wildfires and other natural disasters. A small portion would be spent on the third-party verification.


The Forest Service will start the program with two projects: one in Payette National Forest in Idaho and the other in Custer National Forest in Montana and South Dakota.

For almost eight years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has had a similar program for companies and large groups.

That program was opened to individuals in April, an agency spokesman said.

However, unlike the Forest Service initiative, in which the government and the National Forest Foundation are directly responsible for the offset purchases, the Fish and Wildlife Service program funnels contributions to organizations, such as the World Wildlife Fund, that restore habitat and plant trees.