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Green Gambit: Carbon-trading Programs Help Underwrite Renewable Energy

by: Elizabeth Weise    1 June 2006

For consumers feeling overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of global warming but not quite up to biking to work or buying a new car with better gas mileage, there is an easier alternative — carbon offsets.

These were originally the domain of large corporations looking to underwrite the development of renewable energy elsewhere —such as solar or wind power — to make up for their own carbon emissions.

But in the last two years they've become available to individuals at consumer levels — sometimes for as little as $20.

The concept is this: Putting carbon into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuel helps create global warming. But not everyone can easily stop burning fossil fuels.

Consumer-friendly carbon-offset programs allow individuals to calculate their own "carbon footprint" and underwrite enough renewable energy to make up for the carbon their energy consumption spews into the atmosphere in a year. The costs are between $4 and $10 per metric ton of carbon, depending on the program.

"This is a nice way for people who care about this issue to do something," says Dale Bryk, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "If a lot of people did it, it could have an impact."

Another option is directly buying energy produced through renewable means, such as solar or wind power. In a surprising number of communities it is possible to pay a little more to get electricity generated this way. The Green-e Program offers a state-by-state list.

But for many Americans it's simply not an option in their area. For them, Green-e offers renewable energy certificates, which consumers can buy in 100 kilowatt-hour blocks to offset the greenhouse gases produced by their non-renewable electricity source.

Between these two, consumers who aren't able to drastically reduce their carbon footprint can still do their part to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.