Carbon Offsets Made Simple

Learn what a carbon footprint is and how to offset your carbon use when you travel.


Carbon offsetting. You’ve likely heard the term as it’s increasingly being used in the media, along with its cousins carbon neutral, zero carbon and carbon credits. But what are all these terms circulating the eco-lexicon and what do they mean? How does carbon offsetting relate to you and how you travel? It’s much simpler than you think.

Carbon Definitions

Carbon Footprint
Your carbon footprint is your trace. It is the amount of carbon you waste and leave behind. The idea is to have no carbon footprint or to reduce it as much as possible.

Carbon Offsetting
The phrase simply means to balance out your carbon use. You will still consume carbon, everybody does, but you can help reduce emissions. One carbon offset represents the reduction of one metric ton of carbon dioxide or an equivalent in other greenhouse gases.

Carbon Neutral
Your carbon use is neutral. It’s balanced, offset, a steady zero.

Zero Carbon
This signifies wasting no carbon. Your total output is a big fat absolute zero. You reduce or conserve in other areas as much as you use.

The Travel Carbon Conundrum

The idea behind all of these carbon terms is to reduce or eliminate your carbon (your energy) consumption. Carbon dioxide emissions are the leftovers from our energy use and a major factor in global warming, the deterioration of the ozone layer, pollution, higher oil prices and dozens of other destructive effects. When you travel, your transportation in planes, cars, trains and cruise ships emits harmful carbon into the air. For instance, a flight from New York to Los Angeles burns approximately 100 gallons of fuel per passenger, equal to roughly four months of driving.

Emissions Are Inevitable

Transportation isn’t the only way to emit carbons. Carbon is emitted through energy consumption, as you eat, sleep and even brush your teeth. When you need your hotel towel or sheets washed every night rather than every other day, you’re using more carbon. When you buy small toothpaste tubes instead of a larger tube, your carbon footprint is growing because of the wasteful packaging. If that toothpaste is made in China, it has to be transported long distances, thus making your carbon footprint even bigger and your consumption harder to offset.

Check Yes for Carbon Offsets

OK, the big question: How can I offset my carbon usage as a traveler? It’s actually much simpler and cheaper than you might think. Some airlines and nearly all travel search engines have teamed up with well-known carbon-offsetting programs that give you the option of offsetting your carbon use for a small fee. It is as easy as checking a box. You know on the screen where they ask if you want to add trip insurance or a rental car? It’s right there.

Carbon-offsetting non-profits support eco-programs including planting trees, reforestation, buying acres of wilderness to be conserved, windmill projects and solar energy research. Here’s a brief rundown of carbon offsetting programs you can help support:


This is the name of a program found within Travelocity, though it’s run by the Conservation Fund.
Price: Starting at $3.42 per person for one-day travel to offset your carbon emissions, through Travelocity.
Where do the donations go?: Reforestation. One tree absorbs 1 to 1.2 tons of carbon dioxide during its life. Go-Zero will plant the appropriate number of trees to help bring your carbon dioxide emissions down to zero.

Carbon Fund

Used through Orbitz and other partners, the Carbon Fund offers Carbon Calculators to measure your carbon footprint, and it sells renewable energy certificates (RECs) that go directly to green projects. Orbitz has added a separate search engine at, where you can rent hybrid cars or find hotels that have earned an Energy star from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (Read more about hybrid rental cars.)
Price: $10 for a domestic flight or $20 for international, through Orbitz.
Where do the donations go?: You can choose which specific projects you want to donate to ranging from renewable energy projects (solar, wind, geothermal) to reforestation and energy efficiency (reducing the energy use of coal, oil and natural gas).


Terrapass offers carbon offset education resources, promotes green projects like landfill gas capture, and sells green products like solar phone chargers and climate change-based toys. Used through Expedia. You can also buy an annual Terrapass to cover your travel, commute to work and home carbon use.
Price: Short-haul flights ($5.99), cross country ($12.99) or international ($25.99) at Expedia.
Where do the donations go?: Terra Pass helps fund several different clean-energy projects such as Nebraska’s Ainsworth Wind Facility, Minnesota’s Haubenschild Dairy Farm and the Chicago Climate Exchange.

Collective Change

Visit each Web site to offset your carbon directly, or contribute to these programs through partners’ businesses. You can even pay for past carbon use. Are you ever going to know for sure if you are 100 percent carbon neutral? Probably not. Most likely you won’t even be able to see any difference. But carbon offsetting is a collective effort, one that is catching on quickly, and there’s no doubt that it is making a difference. 

Themes: Ecotourism

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