It's easier than you think
Office work A small business with five employees emits, on average, 35 tons of carbon a year, according to Carbonfund.org.
Cost to offset it: $350
Car travel Driving a car 12,000 miles emits an average of 5 tons of carbon, according to TerraPass.
Cost to offset it: $66
Air travel A round-trip flight from New York to San Francisco emits 2.5 tons of carbon, according to Atmosfair. Cost to offset it: $70
Technology According to TerraPass, a computer server emits about 1.5 tons of carbon per year.
Cost to offset it: $20
Truck travel A truck emits about 111 tons of carbon for every 100,000 miles it's driven, TerraPass says.
Cost to offset it: $1,456
If it were cheap and easy, would you reduce your carbon emissions to zero? Carbon offset providers say that it is, and you can. They will estimate how much your company pollutes and then fund projects, such as wind power plants, to offset the carbon your company produces. Given such big promises and relatively low prices, it's no wonder the offset market is worth $330 million and expected to double by 2010, according to Katherine Hamilton, associate director of Ecosystem Marketplace, a nonprofit industry watchdog.
Carbon offsets are an appealing option for entrepreneurs who are looking to make a difference -- and to brand themselves as green for increasingly eco-conscious customers. But offsets can be difficult to understand and have been controversial. For one thing, the providers have their own calculators for determining how much carbon a person or business emits -- and their estimates can vary widely. Plus, most providers fund only projects that have been certified to accept the money. But there are more than a dozen certifying organizations, and they have different rules.
The good news is that offset providers have been working to raise their standards. Some now invest primarily in projects certified by two organizations: the Voluntary Carbon Standard and the Gold Standard, both of which are highly respected by environmental organizations such as the Tufts Climate Initiative and Clean Air-Cool Planet. Meanwhile, many providers have created small-business programs, and they can help entrepreneurs tout their greenness to customers.
Which vendor is right for your company? We looked at some of the leading offset providers. The outfits we chose all fund projects certified by the Voluntary Carbon Standard or the Gold Standard, though some use other certifications as well. Of course, offsets are not a perfect solution to global warming, and they shouldn't replace efforts to reduce emissions. But they do make it a little bit easier to go green.
What It Does: When most offset providers calculate the greenhouse gases emitted by a flight, they simply look at the amount of fuel consumed. But many scientists argue that burning 1,000 gallons of fuel in flight is far more harmful than using the same amount of gas on the ground, since burning jet fuel at high altitudes creates dense clouds of heat and traps greenhouse gases. Atmosfair, a nonprofit based in Berlin, Germany, takes this tougher stance, estimating that a round-trip flight from New York City to San Francisco emits 2.5 tons of carbon; TerraPass, Carbonfund.org, and the CarbonNeutral Company estimate such a flight would emit about 1 ton of carbon.
Many businesses will be deterred by Atmosfair's prices, which are three times as high as those charged by some other providers. But its prices are high in part because Atmosfair plays a large role in developing the projects it funds. It's more expensive to build a project from scratch than it is to invest in a wind farm that already exists.
Business-Friendly Features: Atmosfair allows customers to use its logos on marketing materials and consults with them on ways to reduce their business travel. But it's not as user-friendly as some of the other providers; it focuses solely on air travel and doesn't have a tool for calculating a business's emissions.
Customers: Greenpeace, International Vegetarian Union, some members of the European Union's parliament
Cost: $30 to $35 per ton
What It Does: It offers a cheap, easy way for companies with fewer than 10 employees to buy offsets. The group, a nonprofit based in Silver Spring, Maryland, estimates that the average company with five employees emits 35 tons of carbon a year, which can be offset for a flat rate of $350. If you have 10 employees, you can offset your emissions for $650.
Business-Friendly Features: Businesses receive a "carbon-free partner" logo to use on marketing materials, and Carbonfund.org helps clients write and distribute press releases about their offset purchases. One drawback: Carbonfund.org has calculators for travel and events but not for businesses. Companies with more than 10 employees must fill out a work sheet and e-mail it in.
Customers: Dell (NASDAQ:DELL), Amtrak, Orbitz (NYSE:OWW),Volkswagen
Cost: $8 to $10 per ton
What It Does: It encourages customers to reduce energy use, not just offset it. Many offset providers let customers tout their green credentials by using their logos on marketing materials. At the CarbonNeutral Company, a London-based for-profit, that privilege is limited to clients who are at "net zero" -- that is, who have reduced or offset all their carbon emissions.
Business-Friendly Features: To help its customers get to net zero, the company offers free consulting. Its staff can help you find environmentally friendly suppliers or use greener packaging. CarbonNeutral also has a calculator focused on businesses.
Customers: Avis, the New Jersey Nets
Cost: $17 to $25 per ton
What It Does: It has strong environmental standards and supports struggling U.S. communities, including Native American reservations. This for-profit, based in South Burlington, Vermont, primarily funds wind power and methane projects. It often provides a lot of upfront funding before the projects are even built, which makes them more affordable for low-income areas. And, like Atmosfair, it takes into account the extra pollution caused by flying. NativeEnergy estimates that a round-trip cross-country flight emits 2 tons of carbon.
Business-Friendly Features: NativeEnergy helps its customers produce marketing materials and consults with them about how to reduce their carbon emissions. It doesn't have a carbon calculator focused on businesses, though it is planning to launch one soon.
Customers: Ben & Jerry's, Salesforce.com
Cost: $12 per ton, with discounts for volume
What It Does: TerraPass has an easy-to-use, comprehensive emissions calculator aimed at businesses. The calculator even asks how many servers you use, whether your company owns them, and which state they are in. If you don't have all that information handy, that's OK; TerraPass has estimates it can plug in instead.
Business-Friendly Features: TerraPass helps customers produce press releases announcing their greenness. And businesses can use the TerraPass logo on their websites and marketing materials -- a good perk, given that it's one of the more recognized brands on the market.
Customers: Burt's Bees, Expedia.com
Cost: $12 to $15 per ton