Help the Planet: Offset Your Car's Emissions

Terrapass lets drivers compensate for their cars' CO2


  • Global warming

    Global warming

    Each year, the average car emits about 10,000 pounds (three times its weight!) in carbon-dioxide pollution — a leading cause of global warming. | March 18, 2010

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As a driver, the word "responsibility" conjures up many ideas, most of which hark back to the days of driver's ed. "Watch the road," "slow down" and "your tires need to stay on the ground at all times" are a few that come to mind. But nowadays, with global warming and carbon dioxide (CO2) on everyone's mind, we should add "eliminate your car's carbon footprint" to that list.

The average car in the U.S. spews out 10,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from its tailpipe each year, accounting for close to a quarter of the country's entire CO2 output. (Check the EPA Green Car Guide to see your car's emissions.) And while the U.S. owns 30 percent of the world's automobiles, its drivers produce 45 percent of the world's auto-related CO2 emissions.

So what's a responsible driver to do?

Enter Terrapass. Started in 2004 by two business students responding to a challenge from their grad school professor, Terrapass is a "carbon offset" company; it allows a person to easily determine their carbon footprint and offset it by contributing to renewable energy sources.

"People were concerned about their cars' emissions, and they were asking what they could do about it," said Tom Arnold, the company's chief environmental officer. And so the company was born.

Terrapass members are almost evenly split between men and women, and the majority hold at least a four-year college degree. They are concerned about global warming, and are also taking the necessary steps at home to reduce their carbon footprint. "These are people who are raising their hands and saying 'I'm going to do something about this problem,'" says Arnold.

And raise their hands they have. At the beginning of 2006 there were 2,000 registered members; as of September 2008, there were more than 150,000. It is TerraPass' goal in the next few years to have 500,000 peoplepeople taking responsibility for their vehicles' carbon emissions.

How Terrapass works

Upon entering the Terrapass Web site, you type in the make, model, year and annual mileage of the car you drive and instantly find out your car's CO2 output. A 2008 Toyota Prius that drives 12,000 miles per year, for example, pumps 4,995 pounds of CO2 out its tailpipe, while a 2008 Hummer H3 adds 15,651 pounds for the same distance. To generate its numbers, Terrapass uses methods set up by the Kyoto Protocol, the 1999 international treaty that seeks, by 2012, to drop greenhouse gas emissions worldwide to 5 percent below their 1990 levels.

Next, you are offered the chance to buy a pass that will offset (counterbalance) the amount of CO2 your car generates, rendering your daily travels "carbon neutral." The cheapest pass, which covers the Prius, among others, is $29.75 per year, while the Hummer is among the most expensive, at $95.20 per year. For this amount, you get a swanky bumper sticker and decal to broadcast your choice to your fellow drivers, a weekly newsletter that gives you environmental tips and the knowledge that you have allowed Terrapass to offset your car's carbon footprint.

Even if you are renting a car, you can still do your part to offset its emissions. Terrapass is working with Enterprise, Alamo, and National to offer passes that cost about $1.25 per rental. According to the rental companies' joint Web site, Keys to Green, the cost is based on the average CO2 emissions generated by a rental car operating in their fleet.

Now I know what you're thinking. "So if I go buy a Terrapass, I can drive as much as I want and I'm not hurting the environment anymore?" Not exactly. Terrapass is not a license to pollute nor does it halt any of the emissions from leaving your tailpipe. Rather, it calculates the amount of CO2 your engine puts out and stops a similar amount of CO2 from entering the environment by subsidizing clean energy. Here's how it works.

Ever since Kyoto, voluntary carbon exchanges have been set up to buy and sell carbon credits between large companies and utilities. One credit is equivalent to the reduction of 1 metric ton of CO2 from the atmosphere. Terrapass uses the money you send them to buy carbon credits from wind farms and biomass generation facilities (which make electricity from cow manure). These earth-friendly companies use that money to subsidize their prices, allowing them to sell their electricity to municipalities more cheaply than conventional companies that burn carbon-rich petroleum and coal. They also use these funds to expand their operations, allowing them to generate even more carbon-free electricity, which helps lower overall costs as well. Finally, Terrapass will invest some of your money in carbon-reduction education and use it to help large corporations, some of the biggest CO2 offenders, lessen their CO2 output.

Bottom line, when you emit CO2 from your car's tailpipe, Terrapass will ensure that the same amount of CO2 that would normally be generated by traditional utility companies is prevented from entering the atmosphere in the first place. And since all of its offsets are third-party verified, you can rest assured that your money is actually doing something to help.

But why stop there?

Once you've cleaned up your car, you can also use the site to offset the energy consumption of airline travel and even your entire home. By filling in some simple numbers, Terrapass will tell you what your carbon footprint is and how much it will cost to offset. With the help of the online travel site Expedia, Terrapass now offers travelers the option of immediately purchasing passes to offset their airline travel; some 1,000 people per week are already taking advantage. Terrapass has also entered into a deal with the shipping company uShip, which uses the Internet to find the lowest shipping price for everything from boxes to boats. Terrapass certifies specific shipping companies that purchase carbon offsets for the C02 they produce.

In April 2006, Terrapass entered into a partnership with Ford, whereby carbon offsets would be used to balance the emissions created from the manufacturing of its hybrid vehicles.

Looking to the future, Terrapass' Arnold hopes that the window sticker on all vehicles sold in the U.S. will eventually display the amount of CO2 the car emits. This would put them on a par with their European counterparts, which presently list CO2 output, and would go a long way toward helping Americans take responsibility for their driving habits.

There's work to be done. The 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 1990, and with the release on February 2, 2007, of a global warming report by the International Panel on Climate Change, there is little question anymore as to what the causes of global warming are and whether we are to blame. The best solution to this problem would be for all of us to simply drive less or, better yet, not at all. But for those of us who believe we are unable to make this lifestyle change, Terrapass makes it possible to understand our impact, take responsibility for it and reverse some of the damage we are causing right now.

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