Giving Thanks for Carbon Offsets

Posted on: November 22nd, 2007 by Barbara Campagna


An article in the NY Times on Thanksgiving encouraged readers to keep a “gratitude journal” reporting that just by writing down the things that you are thankful for you will become happier. A doctor once told me if you smile as soon as you wake up, that will make you happier. I think both suggestions really are just positive reinforcements – if you think about being happy you can become happy.

I thought a lot about being happy as I drove the 450 miles from my home in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington DC to my sister’s 1911 Dutch Colonial house in Buffalo, NY the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. I listened to Radiohead, Dave Matthews Band and even yoga chanting to keep from going into continuous road rage. I had hoped to leave at 1pm so that the 8 hour drive would get me to Buffalo by 9 pm, getting through most of the Pennsylvania mountains in the daylight. Unfortunately, I loaded my Subaru Forester in front of my Art Deco apartment building – with luggage, wine and my cats – to then back over a sewer cover which gave me a flat tire. Leaving at 4pm then put me on the Beltway right in the middle of rush hour – and 2 hours later I had only gone 50 miles and was still in the DC Metro area. This really got me thinking a lot about the carbon impact of all those cars, every day and the 40% population increase projected for the DC area in the next 10 years.

Driving vs. Flying

What are our choices other than driving? I can’t discuss daily driving into the city. I personally find that a really self-involved choice with no justification. I purposely chose a place to live that was near a metro stop and only takes me 15 minutes to get to work through walking to public transit. But there are days (when it’s raining or cold and I don’t have the energy to walk the half mile to the metro) that I drive and pay $11 to park across the street from our Dupont Circle building. And that’s really self involved, with no excuses.

But what is the best way for me to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family in Buffalo? I have two cats whom I want to bring with me. If I fly it’s at least $300 plus $160 roundtrip for each cat! Add in taxis or airport parking and that’s almost $800 for a quick 450 mile jaunt. And as much as I want to do my part in stopping global warming, that is just not a tenable option. Add the 4 hours each way given airport security and lines and I’m not saving that much time either. I did the carbon calculations on the Native Energy Carbon Calculator and if I flew to Buffalo my carbon impact would be .0237 tons or $12 in a one time carbon offset purchase of wind energy. However, shorter flights are more fuel intensive because of the significant amount of altitude gain relative to the length of the flight itself. On a short trip, a large portion of the energy per mile is devoted to climbing and landing, compared to cruising. That means shorter trips are more carbon intensive. So I just can’t win with flying to Buffalo, no matter how you do the calculations.

Driving takes 8 hours (or in this case with rush hour traffic, fog in the dark mountains and stopping every 50 miles to calm down one of my cats who was freaking out – 11 hours). Carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from 900 miles of round trip driving for Thanksgiving amounted to .0352 tons or a $12.00 one time carbon offset payment – just slightly more than flying. I pay $19 a month for my annual carbon impact as it is which includes my many flights and excessive work road travel (12,000 miles a year).

Carbon Offsets or A Guilty Conscience?

Do carbon offsets help the planet? There is a lot of discussion about that. While the policy wonks and scientists battle that topic out, I will remain comforted if not exactly happy in my thinking that paying for wind energy alleviates some of the burden that my desire to spend Thanksgiving with my family in my sister’s historic house in one of the most significant historic neighborhoods in Buffalo places on the environment. And that’s what I’ll write down in my gratitude journal for Thanksgiving 2007 – I’m thankful that my family is well and living in a beautiful, historic place; that my cats and I got safely home for the holidays and that I can buy renewable energy to alleviate the guilt that going home for the holidays can cause in these days of climate change.

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Barbara Campagna

Barbara A. Campagna, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C was formerly the Graham Gund Architect of the National Trust in the Stewardship of Historic Sites office. She is currently a sustainability consultant to the National Trust and can be reached at