03/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Will Carbon Offsets Survive the Downturn?

To get through the recession, consumers are scrimping and saving, which posits an environmental catch-22. Since we're spending less, we're consuming less, but since we have less to spend, we may not be as likely to put money towards extras like carbon offsets. Recently, I caught up with Patti Prairie, the CEO of offset provider Brighter Planet, to talk about how consumers will be green in tough times. Brighter Planet partners with credit card companies to provide offsets that are accrued like rewards points for purchases. One memorable quote from Prairie: "We think this will be the year when knowing your footprint will become a classy thing."

How do you think the practice of carbon offsets will fare in this year's economy?

I think that a time like this when people are focused on doing less is a good time from an environmental point of view. If people understand where it is that they are spending and using energy, they could be more inclined to buy offsets, because there will be a heightened awareness of everyday actions. We consider conservation to be just as much of a win for us as offsetting. It's not selling something, but raising awareness of the environment - raising the sense that every person can do something about it.

What will it take to make carbon offsets more mainstream?

Recognize that it's one arrow in your sustainability quiver. For example, you still may need to drive to work. You can get a car that emits less CO2, but you still have to get there. We have our [credit] cards - they don't cost anything. It's not costing you anything to get offsets [through the card], and invest in renewable energy projects across the country. You have a sense of making a real difference there.

The market for carbon offsets is really varied, and some people don't trust it. Should it be standardized?

Standards are increasing. Every company that provides offsets should be transparent about what their projects are, what standards they adhere to, and how they're performing - that's critical. Pricing, though, pricing varies. Solar projects are more expensive than methane. It has to do with the cost of the actual development of that project. I don't think a standard price is the answer, but being transparent is - how a company picks projects and how they perform. We have an advisory board, and a project selection committee vets [the project] before it's added to our portfolio.

What factors should people look for when buying offsets?

They should look for what is the project additional - that is, can it be resold after they buy it, or would the project only happen because of this offset. That's one of the most important things. You're investing in something that you're making happen, not adding on to a project that would happen anyway. Look at the surrounding area. Is it good for that community? Or is it something that has side effects? We get into how many cows are on a farm, because certain sizes of cow farms can become too big. They need to look at their processes, and be comfortable with them.

Do you think green "extras" - things consumers might have done in better times, like green home improvements - will suffer?

There's a whole range [of actions] that has different price points. Look at things like CFLs - there's an immediate payback for that. Energy savings and the economy go hand in hand, they work together. If you're cutting back on things, you're spending less energy, and less money too.

"Going green" was listed as one of the most annoying phrases of 2008. How can environmental organizations and bloggers fight the backlash?

I think part of it is by explaining things - something can be annoying when someone doesn't understand it. I can tell you from having worked with bloggers of our 350 Challenge - I'm amazed at how they portrayed aspects of the environment. One of the things we're thinking of in terms of trying to make it more understandable is relating it to geography. We're doing an analysis depending on what part of the country you live in, on your energy consumption, and also based on your income level and age. We're just starting to talk about this publicly - you're the first one we've talked to actually. It will be a new Web 2.0 application, like a Flickr for carbon footprints. You can see what your footprint is and share that data with others, just like Flickr lets you store photos and share with friends. It would be based on your emissions, conservation, and offsets. [Note: The application will launch later this spring]

Give me your best, and most uncommon green tip.

Not flying at night - science backs it up.


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