To Offset or Not to Offset?

Posted by Kristen McDonald on Thu, 03/11/2010 - 07:13

Kristen at the AirportKristen at the AirportI leave Berkeley today to head to China for nine months, my heart holding hope that this trip will help bring closer, however minimally, the realization of permanent river protection for some of China’s wild western rivers – the far upper Yangtze, the Nu River, the upper Mekong. This trip has been a long time coming, and is only possible after I finally mustered the nerve to ask everyone I know to donate to China Rivers Project. It feels great to now be heading to China with not only the pull of opportunities and alliances that require action in China, but also the generous push from many folks back home. I am full of excitement, but also humility, as I know that my time there will only be productive if I work very hard, stay flexible, and absorb as much as I can.

In the San Francisco airport, I spot a computer kiosk tucked next to a couple of vending machines. The kiosk offers the purchase of carbon offsets for my flight, and since I have some time, I stop to give the calculator a try. I enter my flight destination - Lijiang, Yunnan - and the computer calculates my flight will contribute 5340 lbs of carbon to the atmosphere and will cost $32.70 to offset. That amount will purchase the equivalent of about an acre of healthy forest for a year, which will “absorb” my carbon footprint for the flight. Wow, 5340 lbs – about 3 metric tons – sure seems like a lot of carbon. Some quick google searching reveals that amount of carbon is about the equivalent of driving about 5000 miles, or by eating 4000 bowls of cereal with cow’s milk.

The calculator I used at SFO is designed by, and contributes funding to a Conservation Fund project to protect the densely forested Garcia River Reserve. I can picture the redwoods and the owls of that watershed, and a wave of nostalgia washes over me. I am leaving my home, my partner, my dog, and the beautiful coastal California bioregion I have called home for the past eight years. I am glad the kiosk is here, reminding folks of the real impact, as in direct impact on the life-giving planet we all depend on, of their travel choices. I pull out my credit card and purchase the offset.

I stand at the kiosk for a while and I take a few breaths. Hmm, should I, after all, have used $32 of my organization’s minimal budget, which I have just gone through once more with a fine tooth comb for any traces of excess, to purchasing a carbon offset? Wouldn’t succeeding in my work in China be a better justification of such a gross belch of carbon into our much abused atmosphere? Maybe I should have saved my pennies for the huge life task I have set for myself, of one day, seeing tens of thousands of acres of free-flowing rivers and their canyons set aside in China. $32 will feed me for two or three weeks in China, as I seek to accomplish this work.

I recognize that we are all part of the global warming problem, and we all need to change our behaviors. Carbon offsetting is perhaps one thing that should be done. But must vaster sacrifices must of course be made if we hope to do anything about global warming, river conservation in China, or any similar daunting tasks. As I walk away from the kiosk, I tell myself that still, the Garcia River is a worthy cause, and I promise myself I’ll fundraise harder, to offset my offset.

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