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UUs get serious about carbon offsets

Congregations and individuals explore ways to reduce carbon emissions.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
7.13.07

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Keen-eyed visitors to the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in June may have noticed a small round, white sticker on the nametags of many visitors. The sticker depicted a flaming chalice with the flame superimposed on a blue-green earth. It meant that the person wearing it had paid an extra $6 to attend GA to offset the energy it took for them to get to Portland, Ore., in the hopes of reducing global warming.

It is the second year in a row that people registering for GA have been given the option to purchase “carbon offsets.” The number of people who bought them jumped this year to 35 percent of registrants, up from 22 percent in 2006. At the same time, several UU congregations are beginning to purchase carbon offsets to make up for the carbon that members use during congregational trips or to counterbalance energy that is consumed in church buildings.

Increasingly popular in recent years, carbon offsets involve calculating the amount of carbon dioxide emissions that are created by an activity—whether it is flying in an airplane, driving a car, or operating an air conditioner or heating system—and reducing an equal amount of carbon somewhere else by investing in projects that decrease carbon dioxide emissions.

With the help of a nonprofit company called Carbonfund.org, GA planners calculated the average amount of carbon that each person would expend getting to Portland. Based in Silver Spring, Md., Carbonfund.org invests all of the $6 voluntary contributions in climate-friendly projects involving clean energy, reforestation, and energy efficiency.

“We started greening GA on the recommendation of the UU Ministry for Earth in 2005,” said Jan Sneegas, director of General Assembly and Conference Services at the UUA, who noted that interest in the offset program grew this year in part because Portland has a reputation for being a green city, and because of increased awareness of the severity of global warming following Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth.

Carbon offsets are not without controversy. Some have criticized them as a kind of feel-good tax. At best, critics argue, carbon offsets allow people to assuage their environmental guilt, while at worst, they allow corporations and individuals to feel comfortable about polluting because they are investing in environmentally conscious efforts. However, proponents of carbon offsetting do not see it as a means of justifying unnecessary carbon emissions. Eric Carlson, executive director of Carbonfund.org, disagrees. “Our motto is: Reduce what you can. Offset what you can’t. Many people understand that carbon offsetting is good, that it works, and that it’s helping to lead to a clean energy future. It’s the most direct way people can take action in the fight against climate change.”

Carlson and his wife, Lesley Carlson, are both Unitarian Universalists. Eric Carlson says that the UU ties did not lead to his association with the UUA for the GA carbon offset program. Instead, he says, he was contacted by an event-planning consultant who was helping GA go green. The Carlsons belong to Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Md.


This summer, members of the First Unitarian Church of San Jose, Calif., are crossing the world, embarking on two separate service trips to Transylvania and South Africa. Travelers on both trips will be going carbon neutral, purchasing carbon offsets prior to their trips.

This offset program was initiated by church member Lisa Hettler-Smith. She is an avid traveler and a travel writer, and she says she has been influenced by her husband’s work for an alternative energy company. “I’ve come to terms with the issue of wanting to travel, see the world, educate my kids, and be a conscientious tourist,” said Hettler-Smith. “It’s very hard to travel without having a negative impact on the planet.” She was not content with the alternative of just staying home, so Hettler-Smith looked for ways to reduce the impact of her travel on the local and global environments.

With the help of a for-profit company called TerraPass, based in San Francisco, Hettler-Smith told her group that it would cost them $20 each to offset their flight to Budapest and bus trip to the their final destination in Homoródszentmárton, site of their partner church. She presented her carbon-neutral plan to her fellow travelers, and they voted unanimously to purchase the offsets. Hettler-Smith knew that after months of fund raising, the extra $20 might break the bank of some travelers. But she was so committed to the carbon offset plan that she offered to purchase the offsets for any traveler who couldn’t afford it. Two travelers took her up on her offer, and she awarded them carbon offset scholarships.

Following the lead of the group traveling to Transylvania, another group of San Jose UUs traveling to South Africa this summer also voted unanimously to purchase carbon offsets to cover the carbon emissions generated by their trip.

“We’re spreading the word and voting with our dollars. It seemed like a natural thing for us as UUs to be in involved in,” said Hettler-Smith. “The big question that comes up with something like this is whether it is making a difference. I am convinced that it is. It isn’t just a liberal, knee-jerk, make-myself-feel-better kind of action. When you purchase carbon offsets you have to ask, ‘What else can I do?’”

On an individual level, Hettler-Smith said that can mean looking around your own home and seeing what you can do to reduce your carbon footprint, whether through new light bulbs, better insulation, or reduced usage.

On a congregational level, she is hoping the carbon offsets for traveling are the first step toward making First Unitarian Church of San Jose carbon neutral. “I feel passionately that we can make an actual difference, even if it’s just a little bit,” said Hettler-Smith. “The carbon offsets are investments in real projects that are producing energy without contributing to global warming.”


Claudia Kern, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Upper Valley in Norwich, Vt., and former chair of the UU Ministry for Earth, is seeing a spike of interest in UU congregations across the country in reducing their carbon emissions.* “Global warming is on everybody’s minds, and UU congregations are really committed to doing something,” Kern said.

At GA in St. Louis last year, the Ministry for Earth distributed global warming action kits for congregations to use to become greener. Carbon offsets can be one part of the effort, Kern said, particularly for churches that have already found ways to reduce their energy consumption in every way they can. “Maybe you have a church that is 250 years old and you plug every hole, but you’re still not very energy efficient. Then you can offset,” said Kern. “A lot of people have problems with the concept of offsets, because they think it’s just a way of keeping doing what you’re doing and buying your way out of it.” However, she believes in Carbonfund.org’s motto to “reduce what you can, and offset what you can’t.”

Several congregations are offsetting their carbon use without buying carbon offsets per se.

At the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester, Ct., the congregation has purchased the “100 percent” clean energy option through the Connecticut Light and Power Co. The plan costs more than paying a standard electrical bill, and it pays for power from a plant that generates power from wind, hydroelectricity and methane recapture. It was one of the main steps in the congregation's Green Sanctuary Action Plan. The church also encouraged member households to elect the clean energy option on their power bills, and more than 70 households signed on.

In Denver, First Unitarian Society recently approved a plan for a three-story elevator to make all floors accessible. Because that will consume more natural resources to operate, the congregation voted to offset the increased usage by becoming a green sanctuary.

At the UU Congregation of Monmouth County, in Lincroft, N.J., members conducted an energy audit to determine the size of the church’s carbon footprint. The congregation set a goal to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions of their meetinghouse by 250 tons. They are considering purchasing wind power to help them become carbon neutral. Solar panels on the church have reduced kilowatt-hours by 15 percent, and the congregation receives regular reports about energy savings.

First Unitarian Society in Madison, Wisc., has just completed an effort to achieve carbon neutrality for the third straight year. In an email, Doug Mitchell, co-chair of the church’s Environmental Action Committee, detailed the many actions they have taken. They include:

  • calculating their church’s carbon footprint based on electric bills and gas bills, as well as gasoline consumed and flight mileage for church business;
  • tying offset fundraising efforts to Earth Day celebrations;
  • using the society’s long-standing practice of designating specific “outreach” recipients for funds collected via the weekend collection plate to fund the offsets;
  • creating a brochure suggesting how members could become involved by buying personal offsets;
  • asking members to make a “global warming pledge” and suggesting actions they could take to reduce their carbon footprints;
  • announcing four education sessions following services to allow members to learn about offsets and calculate their carbon footprint.

Approximately 80 congregants made the global warming pledge. The church worked with NativeEnergy, based in Charlotte, Vt., to establish an easy means for members to buy personal offsets.

Kern has been heartened by the many actions congregations are taking to address climate change. She continues to learn of new efforts through her work with the Ministry for Earth. She also notes that the Ministry has a line item in its annual budget to pay to offset travel to their board meetings and to GA. “We have volunteers from all over the country, and we know deep in our hearts that we should just never get on an airplane,” Kern said. “But we can’t do this work without having some human connection with one another. It’s an ethical and moral dilemma.”


Correction 07.23.07: In an earlier version of this article, Claudia Kern was incorrectly referred to as an ordained minister. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.

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