Climate change discussions are everywhere — in the news, at schools and around the kitchen table. It’s easy to feel helpless in reversing the tide of a changing planet.

However, carbon offsets are an option — if you understand them. It’s not the simplest subject, so let’s dive in.

  1. What’s carbon?

Carbon dioxide, or CO2, is primarily created when we extract, transport and burn fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas.

Some carbon dioxide is a normal part of the natural world — forest fires emit carbon and human beings breathe out carbon dioxide for example. But everyday human activities generate large amounts of additional carbon, whether we’re flying in airplanes, driving in cars, plugging in a laptop, taking hot showers or buying a shirt made of a petroleum byproduct, then shipped here from abroad.

Carbon emissions are higher now than at any point in the past 400,000 years, according to NASA. If business-as-usual continues, the agency notes, “the atmosphere would then not return to preindustrial levels even tens of thousands of years into the future.”

2. Where does carbon come from?

Carbon pollution is generated from direct emissions, such as burning natural gas or coal for heat, hot water or cooking. Carbon is also created by indirect emissions; for example when a power plant burns a fossil fuel to generate electricity.

Carbon dioxide emissions in the Seattle metropolitan area are up 71% since 1990 or an increase of 14% per person. Today transportation is the largest source of these emissions and keeps getting larger.

3. Why does carbon matter?

Carbon is the heavy hitter of greenhouse gases. Almost 82% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from carbon dioxide, according to a 2017 EPA report (the most recent available).

Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change; they include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases.

4. How much carbon am I making?

Your carbon footprint depends upon where you live, your electricity provider, your usage of fossil fuels, and includes:

  • Your daily use of electricity or gas.
  • Your home’s size, insulation, appliance efficiency and fuel type.
  • Your power plant’s method of making electricity.
  • Your vehicle’s fuel efficiency and your mileage.
  • Time spent in flight.

5. Can I clean up my carbon?

Carbon dioxide can be removed from the atmosphere, also called sequestration. Typically, this occurs when carbon is reabsorbed by plants, and is then converted (with water) into food and oxygen. However, as humans have logged forests, carbon isn’t being reabsorbed as fast as it once was.

Today many Pacific Northwest energy consumers want to counteract emissions, says customer renewables program manager Tyler O’Farrell at Puget Sound Energy, which is why PSE offers consumers an option to cancel-out their carbon emissions by buying carbon offsets.

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6. What are carbon offsets?

“If carbon can be emitted anywhere, it can be captured anywhere,” O’Farrell says.

Carbon offsets allow consumers to voluntarily balance their previous or current carbon emissions. These credits are created through carbon-reduction projects that might take place anywhere in the world; each offset unit usually represents one ton of carbon emissions.

Offsets may be offered to consumers and businesses through energy companies or air carriers, or purchased independently from offset retailers like Terrapass or Carbonfund.

“Carbon offsets are making their way into the mainstream,” O’Farrell says.

But there can be some hesitancy, as there isn’t a tangible good you take home, post-purchase. You can’t physically hold your purchased carbon offset in your hands. To help explain benefits to buyers, PSE sends annual reports describing their offsets’ positive impact.

7. What are examples of carbon offset projects?

Carbon offsets might include forestry projects, which focus on planting and conserving trees. Grassland projects boost native grasses, which absorb greenhouse gases. Other projects might increase renewable energy production, improve electricity efficiency, reduce fuel consumption or have socio-economic benefits. They all have one ultimate goal: reducing long-term greenhouse gas-related devastation.

“We love supporting local projects, even if they may be more expensive, because that’s what’s important to customers,” O’Farrell says. PSE projects have included investments in Cedar Grove composting, methane digesters in Eastern Washington, and Port Blakely’s new Winston Creek Forest Carbon Project in Washington’s Lewis County.

Winston Creek is the largest forest carbon project on the voluntary market in the state. Forests naturally sequester carbon, or absorb carbon and produce oxygen, so with the help of carbon offsets, Winston Creek is expanding its forest footprint.  

8. Are all carbon offsets the same?

“Whether customers choose offsets through us or another agency, they should do their homework and make sure the offset projects are verified through a third party,” O’Farrell says, such as Climate Action Reserve, or the Center for Resource Solutions.

The carbon offset “should be able to be quantified in some shape or form, “he says, and monitored for effectiveness and accuracy.

Climate change information can feel overwhelming, O’Farrell says, with bad news reported daily. “But this is something we can do and participate in on the individual level, that has remarkable impact,” he says.

9. What’s the cost of carbon offsets?

There is no set, standard price for carbon offsets. With the site Carbonfund, offsetting a year’s compact car use would cost $36.28, and one flight of up to 20,000 miles is $37.86.

At PSE, two $4 carbon offset blocks per month (around $8/month) is enough for an average homeowner to be “carbon neutral,” where residential use is concerned, O’Farrell says.

However, there’s no upper limit if an individual or family wants to buy more, for “extra credit” where the environment is concerned. They may even end up carbon negative, reducing more than emitting.

10. How else can I reduce my carbon footprint?

You can reduce emissions — and often save money — by taking energy-conserving steps. It’s a two-for-one deal, when purchasing Energy Star products and reducing personal, family or business energy use.

Use a low-flow shower head, turn off electricity when you’re not using it, travel a little less, choose LED bulbs, improve insulation wherever possible, recycle waste and shop for Energy Star appliances when it’s time.

As well, it’s possible to meet some energy needs through alternative means, whether installing solar panels on your house or asking your utility about wind-generated, electric vehicles or other “green” energy options.

Puget Sound Energy offers voluntary renewable energy programs designed to keep sustainability within reach. Each is a way to reduce the carbon footprint of your home and make use of the Pacific Northwest’s abundant clean power resources.