Summer is upon us, unofficially at least. And to usher in the driving season, here’s Carbonfund.org, a new way to offset your personal carbon emissions from driving—as well as from flying, and heating, cooling, and powering your house.

Here’s how it works: Carbonfund.org invests in energy efficiency, in solar and wind power, and in tree-planting projects. And those projects either offset electricity that would have been generated from fossil fuels (coal and natural gas, mostly), or capture carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it trees and forest soils.

The fund apparently looks for projects that wouldn’t be undertaken, were it not for the fund’s involvement—which helps guarantee that people who contribute to the fund are genuinely making a difference, not just taking credit for something that would have happened anyway. And you can use a handy calculator on their website to estimate how much carbon you emit from driving, flying, and operating your home—so you can tailor your carbon offsets to your lifestyle.

There are a number of similar efforts already underway (see here and here for a rundown of some of them, including the better-known Terrapass). But the thing is, buying a ton of carbon through Carbonfund.org is cheap. I mean, really, really, cheap. A ton of CO2 costs just $5.50 US, which is less than one-third the current price on the European Union carbon futures market (which has rebounded somewhat from a mini-crash a few weeks ago). It also means that a mere $19 will offset all the carbon that my family car emits per year.

  • Of course, given that Carbonfund.org’s credits are so cheap, one has to wonder if it’s for real. With some caveats, I’m inclined to think that it is. The rapid runup in the price of fossil fuels means that renewables are becoming very cost competitive, so sometimes a small investment is all that’s needed to make a financially marginal wind or solar project pencil out. Right now, there’s a lot of low hanging fruit—that is, projects that have a great bang for the buck, where only a few extra dollars can turn them from an idea on the drawing board into reality.

    Over time, the price of a ton of carbon is bound to climb, as the low-hanging fruit gets plucked. But for now, I can believe that there are plenty of opportunities to reduce CO2 emissions at $5.50 per ton.

    RealClimate has a great discussion of the program, including some caveats—especially about reforestation projects, for which carbon storage can apparently be hard to measure and verify.

    Now, I know that some people have criticized these sorts of programs as the climate equivalent of buying indulgences—we sin, we pay a sin tax, and forget about it; but we don’t really change our ways. Under this view , a better & more honest step to reducing our own carbon emissions is, well, to reduce our own carbon emissions—not to pay someone else to do it for us.

    There’s a valid point there. But I think it’s a little misguided. I mean, why spend thousands to reduce my own personal emissions by a little bit, when the same investment, pooled together with investments from other people and directed by people who really know what they’re doing, would make a much, much bigger difference? This may be a case where effectiveness, rather than purity, is the real sign of personal virtue.

    (Tip of the hat to Dave Manelski.)