Gradually Greening: Neutralizing my Car

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I can't afford a Prius. I drive my car about 15,000 kilometers every year and I depend on it. Public transit exhausts me and we use the car for stuff like camping and travel to other cities. You know, it's just convenient.

There's hundreds of millions of other people who feel the same way about their cars. Are we all doomed to be part of the climate problem? Or is there something that I, as a fundamentally average and lazy guy, can do on the cheap that will help remove my middle-class guilt over being Part Of The Problem?

I thought about it for a while. Then I decided to neutralize my car.

It'll only take me a minute to do it. Once it's done, my car will effectively be carbon-neutral--for 2007, at least. And I can still drive it as much as I did last year but its net contribution to greenhouse gas emissions will be zeroed.

How's this possible? What I decided to do was to purchase a carbon offset for my car. This means that I calculate the amount of CO2 my vehicle will emit this year, and buy a similar amount of carbon-reduction from an organization that, unlike me, is actually in a position to reduce CO2 emissions somewhere. Buy the offset and voila: you're neutral.

Well... sort of. Carbon offsets aren't a real solution; they're more of a stopgap. Ideally, you do offsetting only after you've reduced your actual CO2 emissions by as much as you can. Eventually we'll all have to give up our gas-guzzlers in favour of something that's neutral without requiring offsets (I favour next-gen electrics, myself). But we don't have to sit on our hands in the meantime. By buying offsets right now you can at least not make things worse, and get a real sense of empowerment that will help you become properly carbon-negative somewhere down the line. You're also enabling green industries, which is no bad thing.

Why did I wait until now to do this? Well, first of all, you have to know that it's possible. There's a number of companies out there who will buy offsets from individuals, for things like driving, air travel, conference events etc. The other thing you have to know is that it's cheap. In the case of my car, about $25/year.

I did not know this. In a vague sort of way, I knew my car produced several tonnes of CO2 a year. An offset for that much carbon must cost... what? A dollar a kilo? Who knew? I assumed that doing a carbon offset of my driving would be one of those bite-the-bullet and prove-your-commitment-to-the-cause sorts of sacrifices that I could use to establish green cred at conferences, but that I would have a hard time justifying to my wife. This assumption prevented me from even bothering to look into offsets for a long time.

But while browsing services on Zero Footprint I came across, which is the consumer division of AgCert. AgCert specializes in reducing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, and DrivingGreen lets you contribute to such remediation projects to offset your CO2 production from automobile use and air travel. Now, immediately, questions come to mind: do they really do what they say, or do they just line their pockets with your cash and walk away? You need to know that the offset you're buying actually happens; in this respect, Buyer Beware is as true for offsets as for any other consumer service.

Also, offsets clearly won't solve global warming: no matter how much methane AgCert reduces from farming, they're not doing a thing to reduce the number of dirty coal plants springing up in China, or the actual number of cars on the road. In fact, there's a danger that buying offsets will be like buying papal indulgences was for Rennaissance robber barons: an excuse to continue bad behaviour. ("I zeroed my car! I can drive it twice as much this year!")

Offsetting, then, has to be part of a broader strategy, not just for organizations but for individuals. In my case, it's part of a spectrum of services and changes I'll be exploring here over the next few months (hence the "Gradually Greening" bi-line). Once I combine offsets with the programmable thermostat and the PowerCost Monitor (which I'll blog about soon) and compact flourescents in every room, I will hopefully start skewing my behaviour towards genuine carbon reductions. And when you throw in new insulation for the house, membership in Toronto's AutoShare plan (to be blogged about as well), more efficient appliances as the old ones wear out... then your footprint starts to shrink. Which is what it's all about.

So I surf to DrivingGreen and use their handy CO2 calculator. I enter my car's year, make and model, and the average number of kilometers I put on it per year (about 15,000 in my case). I click "calculate" and it tells me that my car produces about 6600 pounds of CO2 per year. To offset this amount will cost me US$24.

So I click through and give them my credit card number, and a minute later I'm told my transaction has gone through. It's an odd feeling: for a while I sit here feeling like I've just paid for nothing (other than getting a sticker for my car and a T-shirt for my back). I could have been scammed; how would I know? I remember that there's auditing processes in place to verify what offset companies do, and that they survive on their reputations; astroturfing gets you a bad rep pretty fast in these circles. But more importantly: yes, I have just paid for nothing, and that's really the point, isn't it? I've spent money to do less, not more, in the world--maybe for the first time in my life.

As this sinks in, I start to feel better.


I felt the same way as Karl and just forked over US$40 for an offset. When my husband finds out, he'll roll his eyes and think I'm a naive chump (sucker). I just hope this is for real because if I am being taken, my negotiating position in our house for a) a Prius b) a geothermal heating system and c) more energy efficient windows will go up in smoke, so to speak...

Posted by: Wendy Doyle on February 14, 2007 8:53 AM

I believe that your intentions are very good, but don't you think that the cost of only $25/year is a little low? How much will $25 really do to combat global warming, in comparison to the amount of carbon dioxide that you will emit in a year? The only solution is to accept cuts to our lifestyles, to sacrifice some 'convenience', and ride public transit more often. In my opinion, public transit is much less exhausting than driving. The stress of driving in Toronto at rush hour is enough to make anyone go a little crazy. And think of all the productive things you could do while you're riding the bus/subway.

Posted by: Justin Carr on February 23, 2007 2:42 PM

Great tip Karl, thanks.

In the meantime, while we're waiting for our fusion powered Jetson aircars (I really, really want one!) remember to keep you car tuned up, check the pressure in your tires, don't idle excessively etc. All those little things can add up to quite a a lot of extra fuel consumption.

Posted by: Mark Schroeder on February 23, 2007 4:28 PM