Couple rethinks carbon footprint with green party favors

Some of us learn to live with our contradictions. We might talk corporate responsibility but still shop at Wal-Mart. Or worry about global warming but leave every light on.

While there's no substitute for more conscious living, you can reduce the impact of some of your bad practices.

That thought came to Ryan Legg and Meredith Nelson after they had planned, by their own descriptions, a rather environmentally unfriendly wedding.

Committed environmentalists, they try to live by their principles. They buy local foods, take public transport, don't use air conditioning and keep their home a chilly 65 degrees in winter.

But this was their contradiction: They wanted a traditional wedding — church ceremony, country-club reception, the works. They knew many of the 165 guests would drive three to five hours to get to the wedding. That's a lot of exhaust to pump into the atmosphere.

Plus they were serving steak and chicken, though fish would have used four times fewer carbon emissions to produce. And they wanted cut flowers on the tables, though potted plants would have been renewable.

They were feeling guilty, even with the hydrangeas and peonies coming from local growers. Then, as Legg put it, "We went, "Wait a minute. We should do something good for the environment!' "

They could, they realized, lessen their environmental faux pas by tallying up the energy expended in each guest's car or plane trip, hotel stay and meals, and from the wedding itself. Once they had a "carbon equivalent," they could buy an equal number of "carbon offsets" to be invested in renewable-energy projects such as wind farms and solar installations.

The concept is known as carbon trading, and it's the same principle behind the U.N. Kyoto Protocol treaty, which sets limits on each country's carbon emissions. Carbon dioxide is believed to be the No. 1 human-induced cause of global warming.

Countries buy credits in return for exceeding their limits.

The United States pulled out of the treaty before it took effect in 2005. But mitigating greenhouse gases can be done at the individual level, too. Each person has a carbon footprint, representing the amount of carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere by using fossil fuels such as oil or coal to drive, fly or heat homes. Even the things we buy contribute because of the energy required to create and transport them. You can calculate your carbon footprint using the Web site they did,

The couple arrived at a carbon equivalent of 27,000 pounds. So they bought an equivalent amount of carbon offsets, which cost under $200. Cards on each table let guests know that this was in lieu of party favors. "Better than a little bag of M&M's," says Nelson.

Legg, 26, and Nelson, 25, are graduate students at Cornell University. Both went into engineering with an interest in improving living standards in the developing world. As a researcher at Cornell's Johnson School Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise, Legg has explored how the private sector is addressing environmental concerns.

The best way to reduce greenhouse gases and global warming, of course, is to conserve energy, use public transportation or drive more energy-efficient cars. But this is an alternative that promotes awareness and interjects an ethical approach into a major life event. It shows that doing better by the environment (and your conscience) doesn't have to be punishing. You can get pretty creative with it.

Rehka Basu is a columnist at the Des Moines Register.