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TODAY contributor
updated 2/24/2009 4:55:55 PM ET 2009-02-24T21:55:55

Do you drive? Use electricity? Travel by plane? Unless you live off the grid in a self-sustaining house powered by solar panels, consume only food you’ve grown yourself and travel only as far as your feet will take you, the answer is an environmentally unfriendly “yes.”

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While there are numerous ways we can adjust our lives to consider the environment — practicing the three R’s; choosing a bike over four-wheeled transportation; air-drying our laundry and so on — it’s pretty much impossible to eliminate our daily energy use. Every time we flick on a light, fry an egg or boot up the computer we’re using energy, which results in carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.

In addition to the everyday steps we take to reduce our impact on the planet — filling reusable bags with organic produce; using earth-friendly cleaning supplies and personal care products; seeking out used lawnmowers, blow-dryers or bridal gowns to keep yet another item from ending up in the landfill — we can now add carbon offsets to the list.

Most carbon offset companies provide consumers with an online carbon calculator so we can easily work out just how much CO2 we’re spewing into the environment. But Billy Connelly, a spokesman from carbon offsets company Native Energy, gave me a quick peek at the damage we’re doing. According to Connelly, the average American home generates 12 tons of carbon each year and the average American vehicle generates six tons. And each member of the family produces about 18 to 20 tons of carbon individually.

That’s a lot of carbon pollution simply from daily living, but what about those of us who also travel frequently? “One of the biggest causes of carbon impact for Americans is their travel-related emissions,” says Connelly. “Airline travel uses tons of jet fuel and the impact on the environment is considerable.” In fact, the numbers may have you reconsidering your next long-distance journey. A round-trip flight from New York to Los Angeles generates two tons of carbon per passenger. Multiply that by approximately 300 passengers and thousands of flights per day and it’s clear that the planet is suffering from our need to go places.

When putting the earth first, travel options used to be limited: Stay home or walk. Today, we can balance out carbon emissions from flying — and from driving and electricity use — by purchasing carbon offsets. The concept can a bit confusing at first, but the basic idea is that an offset company will use your money to finance renewable energy projects that ultimately reduce the need for environmentally damaging fossil fuels. Some of the recent projects that Native Energy has funded are the Wray School District Wind Turbine, a wind turbine that was built in eastern Colorado, and the Dovan Family Farm methane project, which generates electricity from manure-based methane.

Wind turbines and methane-powered electricity are great, but in these lean times, the question remains: How much is it going to cost? Offset companies will generally allow consumers to purchase offsets in amounts that feel good to them. Native Energy, for example, welcomes offsets as low as one ton of carbon or one dollar per month. “We strongly recommend that you don’t look at it as an all-or-nothing proposition,” says Connelly. “Get involved at whatever level you can. If everyone took those steps we could help to build thousands and thousands of renewable energy projects.”

Another question that surrounds carbon offsets is the legitimacy of the operation — that is, how can you be sure that your money is actually being put to good use? For Native Energy, the proof is in the receipts you’ll receive from both the company and from its partner, Clean Air-Cool Planet, a 501C nonprofit — and from the project itself. “We’ve had many clients visit the projects that they’ve contributed to.” It doesn’t get any more real than checking out the physical result of your offset purchase.

There are a handful of legitimate offset companies out there today, and deciding which one will do the most good with your hard-earned cash can be challenging. Before signing on, Connelly recommends doing a bit of research. He suggests taking the time to look into a company’s reputation, finding out if it has done any independent research, checking out the client list (remember, as of now this is a voluntary industry, so if trustworthy names have signed on with an offset company there’s a good chance you’ll also be in good hands) and reviewing the FAQs to see what kinds of questions the company responds to. Clean Air–Cool Planet has also included a list of key questions to ask when looking to purchase offsets in A Consumer’s Guide to Retail Carbon Offset Providers.

As you explore the rapidly expanding world of carbon offsets you’ll inevitably find that you learn more about the carbon emissions that you produce as an individual. Though it may seem like you need a Ph.D. to digest all this new information, the effort you make to understand the impact you have on the planet is one of the first steps to reducing it. “Sustainability is a journey, so get involved and get engaged,” says Connelly. “The climate crisis is real, and we need to act as quickly as possible.”

Marisa Belger is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience covering health and wellness. She was a founding editor of Lime.com, a multiplatform media company specializing in health, wellness and sustainable living. Marisa also collaborated with Josh Dorfman on “The Lazy Environmentalist” (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang), a comprehensive guide to easy, stylish green living.

Please note: Neither Marisa Belger nor TODAYshow.com has been compensated by the manufacturers or their representatives for her comments or selection of products reviewed in this column.

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