A green gift in carbon offsets

An organic cotton reusable shopping bag sold on the NativeEnergy.com website.

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TESS VIGELAND: Believe it or not this holiday season there are some travel bargains to be had. Airfares are down. And gas, of course, is far more affordable than it was during the summer travel season. But fewer people are driving or flying. The Air Transport Association says airline travel is down 9 percent from last year. And the Department of Transportation says Americans drove 100 billion fewer miles this year than last.

Still, if you are planning that holiday jaunt, you may want to think of ways to be more charitable to the environment.

Marketplace's Joellen Easton reports on some options.


JOELLEN EASTON: I like to give meaningful Christmas gifts that don't break my piggybank. This year I'm thinking about giving carbon offsets. That's where I invest in off-setting my friends' and family's greenhouse gas emissions. My investment goes into things like building new wind power, or planting trees.

But I can't quite commit. Maybe people won't appreciate it. Can I afford it right now? Is it just me, or are others holding back, too?

PETE DAVIES: You know, I don't think anyone is having a fun time retailing on the holidays at the moment.

That's Pete Davies, general manager of Terrapass, a website that sells offsets. He says he gets that people are feeling squeezed, and offsets aren't exactly a necessity.

DAVIES: They're undoubtedly a discretionary purchase. But I think for plenty of people they see a responsibility in doing their best to minimize their impact on the planet.

And the number of people and businesses who feel that responsibility is growing. In 2006 the voluntary carbon offset market in the U.S. was $97 million. In 2007 the offset market tripled.

Eric Carlson heads Carbonfund.org, a nonprofit that sells carbon offsets.

Eric Carlson: The industry is clearly growing. And awareness about climate change is growing. People want to do something about it and this is a priority for them.

But 2008 is a recession year. And despite getting more customers, Carlson is seeing the size of individual purchases decrease.

So are purchases by businesses. Those make up a much larger portion of the overall market. Some of Carbonfund.org's business partners are now getting their customers to buy offsets while they make their purchase online. That way customers help businesses offset their emissions instead of having businesses do it all themselves.

Carbonfund.org's Carlson says individual purchases normally spike in December. But this year he's watching the numbers closely. Sales dropped off in the fall when the stock market crashed. So companies like his are offering new options for holiday shoppers.

Here's Pete Davies from Terrapass:

DAVIES: Of all the gifts that we sell, the best selling thing so far this holiday -- a smart strip. It's like . . . it's, it's really the most unglamorous present that you can possibly think of.

This power strip turns off related appliances when you turn off the main appliance. So, for example, it cuts the power to your DVD player when you turn off the television.

And the hottest selling item on Carbonfund.org right now is a similarly unglamorous $10, 1 ton offset gift card. That's almost enough to offset a single roundtrip direct flight from Phoenix to Atlanta.

Now, I have three family members flying into Los Angeles for Christmas. What if I offset the carbon generated by their flights? Taken all together, that's 16,000 miles, which is 8 tons of carbon, for a grand total of 80 bucks.

Hmm. That's still a little more than I wanted to spend. But I bet those $10, 1 ton offset cards would make great stocking stuffers.

I'm Joellen Easton for Marketplace.

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