Are Carbon Offsets Right For You?

How do you determine your carbon footprint and then minimize your impact? This primer can help.

This climate emergency has forced industries and individuals to rethink the choices they make and take stock of their carbon footprint. Large, emitting industries are now tightly regulated and many companies are required to take steps to reduce their emissions and purchase carbon offsets. 

While these highly polluting industries–like energy, cement, and steel–are the largest contributors to global carbon emissions, the choices that each of us make in our lives is not nominal, and they all add up.  

The decisions that comprise the majority of an individual’s carbon footprint involve food consumption, travel, and energy consumption. 


Food Consumption and Carbon 

Put simply, plant-based diets have the lowest carbon footprint.  The cultivation of livestock is much more resource intensive than growing fruits and vegetables. Animals like cows and pigs contribute significant emissions to the atmosphere in comparison to their leafy counterparts. 

On top of that, most of the food in your local grocery store isn’t grown or produced locally, and travels a long way to get from the farm or factory to your plate, an issue that both herbivores and carnivores need to consider.

But how can people learn what their carbon footprint is, and how can they make meaningful lifestyle changes to minimize their impact? Many free online calculators provide extensive information about how users can make more environmentally conscious decisions.

For example, the Floop app is a food-based carbon footprint calculator where people can report what they eat and learn the associated greenhouse gas emissions from their meals. Additionally, Floop provides healthy, environmentally friendly recipes—meals that require minimal emissions to prepare to ensure that app users are aware of their carbon footprint and can gradually shift their meal choices to create an environmentally friendly diet.

Overall, to limit greenhouse gas emissions associated with food consumption, it is best to consider the environmental cost of the food you eat by answering these two questions:

  1. What resources go into growing food you eat?
  2. How far does your food have to travel to get to you?

Foods such as meat typically emit more through production than other foods, even the lowest emitting meat such as chicken still creates around 10 times more gas emissions than plant-based foods, while beef emits over 50 times as much as most plant-based foods.

Furthermore, foods produced across the country, or internationally, must be transported by car, boat, or plane, which accounts for nearly 20% of global food system emissions on its own, according to the European Union. 

Because food systems account for about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, this means that food transport is the cause of over 6% of global emissions. This emphasizes the importance of knowing where your food comes from and purchasing locally grown food when that is an option.

What’s Your Travel-Related Carbon Footprint

A person’s travel plays a large role in their carbon footprint. This includes their daily commute to work, driving to a movie theater, family vacations, and everything else that involves a plane, train, or automobile. With most people in America driving to work on a daily basis, it’s understandable that travel is such an integral aspect of a person’s carbon footprint.

The EPA offers a greenhouse gas emission calculator with a section dedicated to car travel. By inputting the miles driven and gas mileage of the car, the calculator quickly informs users of their annual greenhouse gas emissions from driving. 

Additionally, myclimate has created a flight emissions calculator that easily shows plane travelers their carbon footprint, suggesting that users make an “equivalent climate protection contribution.” 

Carbon Footprint and Energy Consumption

Finally, the average person consumes much more energy daily than they realize. A section of the EPA’s greenhouse gas emissions calculator helps users calculate emissions from household energy use. This includes emissions associated with natural gas, electricity, fuel oil, and propane. Essentially, the EPA measures a household’s energy consumption based on a utility bill, and then reports total emissions from that consumption. 

The EPA’s suggestions for reducing emissions from energy consumption include actively changing thermostat settings to accommodate outdoor weather, and replacing refrigerators and  light bulbs with energy-efficient alternatives.

The recommendations given by these sources to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are certainly a worthwhile effort. However, these efforts do not completely eliminate the production of greenhouse gasses, they only limit the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted into the atmosphere. 

As our society transitions into a carbon-neutral model, high amounts of greenhouse gas emissions will still be prevalent and require a short-term solution. 

Carbon Offsets to Mitigate Emissions

One way people can mitigate their carbon emissions is by purchasing carbon offsets. A carbon offset is a transaction that removes CO2 or other greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere to compensate for emissions made elsewhere. 

The most common carbon offset projects today focus on emissions reductions (like landfill gas capture), forest management and conservation, biodiversity protection, renewable energy, biochar, and direct air capture.

But not all carbon offsets are created equal, and there are high- and low-quality offsets. Carbon offset projects can range from a simple tree-planting project to one that captures gasses from the atmosphere and stores them deep underground. 

Each project varies in terms of efficacy. For example, some projects like planting trees do remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through sequestration. However, once those trees die, the sequestered carbon is again released into the atmosphere, making these projects impermanent, and therefore not optimally effective. On the flip side, gas-capture projects are typically regarded as high quality as they permanently dispose of emissions.

The EPA calculates that the average American household emits about 14,000 pounds of carbon dioxide annually. Given this data, the approximate cost for every household in the United States to offset their carbon emissions would be about $130 annually using Green Builder Media’s default carbon offsets portfolio.

Do you want to learn more about reducing your carbon footprint by purchasing carbon offsets? Visit Green Builder Media’s COGNITION Carbon Offsets Marketplace.  

Publisher’s Note: This content is made possible by our Today’s Homeowner Campaign Sponsors: Whirlpool. Whirlpool takes sustainability seriously, in both their products and their operations. Learn more about building and buying homes that are more affordable and less resource intensive.