Carbon footprint.  CO2 emissions.  Low carbon.  Carbon neutral.

More and more, businesses eagerly attach themselves to buzzwords like these in order to present an environmentally-friendly face to today’s green-conscious market.

I learned a new one the other day: “carbon offset.”

What is it? 

Carbon offset providers, like, offer companies and individuals the opportunity to become carbon neutral by applying “carbon credits” against their carbon output for the year.  The process is simple: you donate money, which the service passes on to a certified project of your choice.

Carbon offset projects contribute positively to the environment through methods like generating renewable energy, increasing energy efficiency, or planting trees.  An example project might be a small hydroelectric plant in India that produces sustainable energy without the need for a dam.  The plant reduces local air pollution and creates job opportunities, producing more benefits than just carbon reduction.

Carbonfund has excellent resources for calculating exactly how much carbon you or your business generates.  You can input details down to how many reams of copy paper you use every year.

By many accounts, Carbonfund is a reputable middleman.  They’ve helped a lot of busy people do their part to save the world with just a credit card.  Their list of “partners” includes hundreds of companies, plus nonprofits, government institutions, and schools.  Their financial comportment is probably not sketchy, as they’ve uploaded tax information for public scrutiny.

How much does it cost?

If you’re in a hurry, Carbonfund will give you a rough estimate of how much you’d have to donate to be guilt-free for one year, based on head count: $240 for an “individual offset,” $360 for a small company of 1-5 employees, and so on.

You can also offset specific items: for example, paying $11.33 will absolve you of the crime of one flight up to 6,000 miles.  Gift certificates are also available, at a rate of $10 per ton of carbon offset.  Nothing says “Happy Birthday” like “I want to wipe your footprints off the face of the earth.”

Exactly how much would it cost us to offset Eco Brooklyn’s carbon footprint?  I inputted our company’s stats into Carbonfund’s nifty calculator.

Tiny home office, skeleton crew of managers, workers, and interns.  One old truck (no  option for “veggie oil,” alas).  No copy paper.  We make maybe $1oo worth of CO2 every year.  Mostly because we take up space and breathe.  We can’t really help that.

That calculation doesn’t take into account our commitment to green methods.  Our reliance on local sourcing methods, salvaged materials, passive house-style energy conservation, bicycles and public transportation already put our carbon output far below the average, and that’s without accounting for all the green roofs and sustainable landscaping projects we’ve installed.

So what’s in it for me?

You get a nifty logo to put on your website.

You also get a suite of other publicity and networking benefits, like being listed as a “partner” on Carbonfund’s site and being able to connect with other “partners.”

$360 and we could be officially carbon free.  Certified guilt free.  Is it so simple?  Should it be?

I’m not doubting the networking powers of gathering like-minded companies in a common cause, or the potential of providing an easy way for people to make a little bit of a difference, but there’s a striking disconnect between the difference you make and what you’re making up for.

Paying to “offset” your carbon doesn’t mean you’ve changed anything about how you run your business.  Making up for your carbon footprint isn’t a commitment to changing where those expenditures came from.  It’d be like hiring a maid to follow you and mop up your footprints, while continuing to stomp around in muddy boots.

Carbon offset is one more thing a forward-thinking company could look into in order to become truly carbon neutral, but it’s not a substitute for going green.  The Carbonfree badge does a pretty good job of making a company look green, but it’s not a substitute for a business philosophy that strives for lower carbon emissions.

Carbonfund encourages people to “reduce what you can” and “offset what you can’t,” but a modest one-time payment sounds a lot easier than making a dedicated effort to change how you live.  Why change, if you can just pay to have your mess cleaned up?  It’s even tax-deductible.

So for a couple hundred dollars, what you get is a small stake in saving the world.  And a “green” mask that lets you  milk today’s environmentally-conscious consumers.

You decide which is worth it.

More food for thought: a panel of experts, including president Eric Carlson, discuss whether carbon offset is a solution to climate change or a loophole that can subvert it.