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Money, Meet Mouth

So, I work as an environmental economist, right? I vote for The Greens, cycle everywhere, buy organic food, turn all my appliances off when I’m not using them, reuse my shower water, and generally try to follow the reduce/reuse/recycle motto. But, since 2006, I’ve flown from Australia to Germany (and back), between Germany and London several times, and between Melbourne and Sydney even more often. Oh, and driven Melbourne-Sydney and back. Against all those emissions (particularly the Australia-Germany flights), the marginal changes I’ve made to my life are paltry.

Last week, I was hunting around for figures on how many carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) emissions Earth could remove from the atmosphere each year, in order to calculate roughly what each person would be able to emit without increasing the concentration of CO2-e in the atmosphere. The answers were a little confusing, as the climate system is ridiculously complicated and there are many higher-order effects1, but roughly speaking the Earth absorbs 12 Gt (gigatonnes; thousand million tonnes) of CO2-e per year, giving us roughly 2 tonnes of CO2-e allowance per person per year.

The current world average closer to 4 t/year, and developed countries are usually much, much higher; Australia’s are around 28 tCO2-e/person/year. 

That’s not direct emissions, of course: most my share of Australia’s average emissions I have little to no control over. My flights, however, are entirely of my own doing. So I followed up an idea I’ve been toying around with for a few years, which is to purchase carbon offsets. How that works is that other people offer to reduce CO2-e emissions via different projects (renewable energy rather than fossil fuels; reduced fuel usage via efficiency measures; planting trees), these savings are verified/certified to a particular standard, and other people can then “purchase” these savings in a market: basically, I’m paying someone to have (had) lower CO2-e emissions on my behalf, offsetting my own. (I’ve started with past flights and those currently booked, long car trips, and will offset future travel as it occurs; my day-to-day emissions I’m counting against my “allowance” – I’m almost certainly exceeding it, but right now I have no way of accurately calculating by how much.)

Depending on the type of project, its location, and the standard to which it’s certified, the offsets cost more or less money: the cost of one tonne of CO2-e in the EU emissions trading market (1 EUA) has hovered around 15€ for the last two years, while permits generated to slightly less stringent conditions (CERs; often from developing countries where standards aren’t quite as high) have hovered around 12€.

Starting with the excellent Victorian Government/RMIT website, I went through a list of companies that offer to sell you carbon offsets, comparing the certification standards they met and the types of projects they offered. Eventually I settled on First Climate (, a German company with an Australian offices; I chose First Climate  primarily because they offered Gold Standard Verified Emission Reductions (VERs), which was the level of quality I wanted to buy. Their record of operating internationally, and particularly in Germany, was another reason.

I sent them off an e-mail, and within minutes a charming fellow called me to talk about how much I wanted to offset, and how. Having already used one of the online emissions calculators (see the offset guide website, earlier) and thought about the options, I was able to give him a tonnage and project preference, where-upon he sent me a list of possible projects with different standards and the corresponding prices per tonne.

The end result is that, just now, I have bought and retired 20 tonnes of CO2-e emissions credits (Gold Standard VERs) from the Yuntdag Wind Power Project in Turkey (PDF) (Project Number 22-07-283) at AU$30 per tonne. That’s not cheap – but, for me, it’s worth it.

1 When one thing directly affects another (I push the cup: it moves; the price of something rises; the sun rises: it gets warmer), that’s called a first-order effect. When the causal chain has intermediate steps or multiple sources, there are more – higher – “orders” of effect (e.g. the sun-warmed air rises and begins to circulate; the rotation of the earth changes the pattern of circulation; the circulating air absorbs moisture and forms clouds, changing the pattern of heating and therefore further changing the pattern of circulation).

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