Forgive me, Earth, for I have sinned.
You see, a dear childhood friend of my boyfriend’s got married last Saturday. Our attendance was a foregone conclusion — there was no way Ted could miss his bro’s big day. Problem was, we live in Seattle, and this wedding was in Marfa, Texas, a tiny town a full eight hours’ drive from Austin. We had to travel — a lot — to reach this blessed event. With travel come carbon emissions, and with carbon emissions comes guilt. If it helps, I feel really bad about it.
Perhaps the most hardcore greenies out there would say we shouldn’t have attended this wedding, period. But it was too emotionally important to us to skip, so off we went. We flew from Seattle to Austin with a stopover in Denver (more than 3,300 air miles, according to the carbon calculator at ClimateCare.org). Then we loaded the groom’s Nissan Xterra with four passengers and drove to Marfa (428 miles). We sniffled during the vows, we toasted the happy couple, and we partied into the night. And then we headed home. And we generated a helluva lot of carbon dioxide to do it.
Being bad can feel so good, but now that it’s over and done with, I’m looking to atone. I’m certainly not alone in this desire — witness the variety of carbon offset programs that exist to serve this very need. It’s an alluring idea: You compensate for the carbon emissions your vacation unleashed upon the world by paying someone else to plant trees or other activities that take CO2 out of the atmosphere. For just a few bucks, you get the equivalent of a glass of warm milk and a pat on the head. “Don’t worry, everything is just fine,” the carbon offset coos as it lulls you off to sweet, guilt-assuaged sleep.
If you think that sounds too good to be true, it is. Most green thinkers agree that carbon offsets aren’t a true solution to the travel problem, arguing that limiting overall emissions should be the real goal and that offset programs could take decades to really make a difference. But if an easy offset purchase is out, what’s there to do about all that sinful carbon from Marfa?
I’m starting my own offset program. I vow to directly and personally offset every pound of carbon dioxide created by our Seattle-Denver-Austin-Marfa excursion by cutting back on my carbon footprint at home. If I can remove the emissions that I would have created without this plan, surely that will make it up to our atmosphere, won’t it? I got to take an amazing trip, and in the end, my total carbon footprint will be the same as if I’d simply sent a “Congrats, lovebirds!” card instead.
Of course, this is trickier than I thought. My first problem is figuring out exactly what my emissions debt actually is. I Googled “carbon emissions calculator” and I got a bunch of options, all of which gave me different estimates for my trip. I’ve decided to average the results from three different calculators: Climate Care, TerraPass, and CarbonFootprint. This gives me a whopping 1,557.7 pounds of CO2 for the flight portion of the trip.
And let’s not forget that long haul across the Texas desert from Austin to Marfa. Again, I’ve averaged the results from three calculators (Climate Care, Terrapass, and The Nature Conservancy instead of CarbonFootprint this time). Because we had four passengers, I’m technically only responsible for one-fourth of the car’s emissions, so I divided the footprint by four (the other three can find their own damn atonement plan). My round-trip emissions: 300 pounds of CO2.
My total damage, then, is 1,858 pounds of carbon. If there’s an environmental inferno for sinners like me, I fear my trip would land me in at least the third circle of Hell. You know, the one reserved for gluttons.
Getting that debt back down to zero is a daunting task. For one thing, there are a lot of energy-saving measures that I can’t do because I rent an apartment in a small building. I don’t control the heat in our individual home, so I can’t turn it down. Nor can I invest in big efficiency measures, like replacing windows, adding insulation, or getting an Energy Star dishwasher. Plus, I’m going to be strict here and say that green measures I already take — such as cold-water laundry or taking the bus around town — don’t count against my carbon debt because I would have done them anyway. Not even my composting worms will buy me forgiveness.
So what’s left for a poor sinner to do? I checked the EPA’s tipsheet to start. I can still stand to install a few CFLs, and that leaky bathroom faucet can finally get fixed. I can also ditch the clothes dryer and rig up a few clotheslines across the apartment. I can shorten my indulgent showers and install a water-saving showerhead. Drive less. Bus more. Bike even more than that. Take the most dramatic steps possible to set all this right. Got any suggestions? Please, share ‘em. I’ll provide regular updates on my progress as the year goes on.
By the way, you know how difficult a carbon offset would be for that flight? As difficult as writing a check for $11.90 to Terrapass. It’s tough being principled, ain’t it?