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From Mexico to Palestine: Carbon Offsets

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treeMuch has been written about the pros and cons of carbon offsets. The idea, if you haven't been following, is that you pay money to a nonprofit organization to plant trees or invest in renewables or otherwise reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere in an attempt to offset the carbon you've generated.

There are many calculators online that help you to figure out how much carbon you've generated and where you should donate it. Carbon Footprint is a nice flexible one that lets you calculate individual aspects of your life as opposed to doing a whole audit -- both can be good, but since I'm on the road, my lifestyle doesn't easily fit into many of these calculators. Since my main impact is travel, I figured my mileage and multiplied the air travel by 1.9 to account for the increased impact airplane emissions have (the amount used by Carbon Footprint). It then lets you select from a variety of worthy projects from Kenya to Central America.

Critics compare this system with the Catholic Church's system of indulgences in medieval times -- a system that allowed people to "buy" forgiveness for their sins by making donations to the Church. They argue that there's a wide variance among carbon offsetting groups, none of them are regulated and there's no way to know for sure that the trees you're paying to plant wouldn't be planted anyway.

Now I'm not interested in buying forgiveness or its modern manifestation, greenwashing; and I don't really care if the amount of carbon I'm generating is translated precisely into the right number of trees. I am, however, interested in minimizing my impact while promoting social change. So when I learned that The Farm in Tennessee had set up a system allowing donations to be used to plant trees at the Marda Permaculture Farm, I decided to go that route. I trust the judgment of the folks at The Farm, which has been a leader in promoting sustainable living around the globe for decades; and I also know quite a bit about the Marda project.

Although I don't know them directly, I have a personal relationship with the Marda Permaculture Farm because my sister Tami Brunk is a co-founder. She worked with founder Murad Alkufash to establish the organization, eventually traveling to Marda, a Palestinian town located at the West Bank of the Jordan river. She has shared with me much about the group's work over the years, not just in terms of supplying much-needed food security but in building resilience and hope in the Palestinian territories, where those elusive qualities are so desperately needed.

So, having decided on where I wanted to put my money, I did my own calculations with the help of The Farm's Trees for Airmiles page and
Geobyte's City Distance Tool to calculate my mileage: Flying from St. Louis to Mexico City via Dallas racked up 1,481 miles; multiply that by 1.9 as Carbon Footprint suggests and you get 2,813 miles. Then I did a rough calculation of what I think the next two months will look like: Mexico City to Guadalajara to Nayarit to Guadalajara to Mexico City, then down to Cuernavaca, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chiapas and Quintana Roo before heading over into Belize. All of that comes, very roughly, to about 2,793 miles.

Put it all together, and that comes to about 5,606 miles for the two months or so that I'll need for Mexico. Using The Farm's calculation of 1 tree per 5,000 for plane travel, and 1 tree per 1,100 miles for car travel (though I'll mostly be traveling by bus, which should have a considerably lower impact), and I figured I'm more than covered at $10 a month, which will plant 30 trees this year.

I don't know if it's enough or too much. But at least I'm trying -- and so are the folks in Marda. As I see it, that can only be a good thing.

What are your thoughts and experiences on the subject of carbon offsets? Please share in the comment section below.

Tracy L. Barnett is the founder of The Esperanza Project, a green bilingual news portal for the Americas. Currently she is traveling through Latin America profiling sustainability initiatives throughout the continent. Follow her journey on her travel blog, Roads Less Traveled, and learn about Latino eco-warriors at The Esperanza Project.

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