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Q. Dear Umbra,

Lately I have been traveling a lot for work. This has made me seriously consider buying offsets for these trips. I know that it is better to not travel at all, but outside of quitting my job I can’t get around it. I have considered spending money on projects around the house to lessen my footprint, but using a carbon offset seems to give you more bang for the buck. My question is, are these offsets really helping or should I save my money for a bigger ticket item like a solar water heater?

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Kevin E.
Raymond, Wash.

A. Dearest Kevin,

business travelOr you could find another way to go.What an elegant weaving together of our two most recent discussions, on carbon offsets and solar water heaters. Bonus points for you!

As we discussed last week (don’t I sound like your mom or dad? was there a discussion, or just a monologue?), it may be most helpful to think of personal offsets as a contribution to a renewable energy project. In the best-case scenario — with all the usual caveats about sussing out the quality of the offset here — offsets help support renewable energy. This is good, because we do need more renewables capacity on our electric grid, people in deforested areas need solar ovens, landfill methane should be captured, wind turbines should be built, etc. However! Remember that voluntary offsets do not erase, vacuum up, cancel out, or otherwise negate the actual emissions you produce.

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As we also discussed last week, solar water heaters are a proven, easily adopted technology that can make a real difference in your home emissions, replacing up to 70 percent of your water heater’s footprint with galaxy-derived, renewable, carbon-neutral energy.

If we consider your travel emissions as but a subset of your total life emissions, it may help you see a bit more clearly how to choose a compensatory action. Installing a solar water heater, or any equivalent proven environmental home investment, will reduce your actual total emissions. The actual amount of greenhouse gases for which you are personally responsible — Kevinpogenic greenhouse gases — will shrink. Achieving this real shrinkage is what I would recommend.

I’m not alone, either. Voluntary climate offset advisories recommend the same, including the Stockholm Environment Institute, Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defense Fund … Do what you can to improve your personal footprint. This, by the way, should include discussing with your employer whether there are ways to reduce the amount you travel, or reduce the impact of your travel. You haven’t said much about where you go, or why, or how you get there, but there may be creative solutions that could help — carpool, or conference call, or even train instead of plane.

If you still must travel for work and if you have money left after you take more concrete emissions-reduction steps at home, by all means support renewable energy projects via offsetting or other methods. Vocally supporting a solid national cap and trade program, and your regional climate plan, are also vital actions that shouldn’t cost you much money at all.