How to Buy Carbon Offsets

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Air travel, especially long trips, is one of the worst things an individual can do for the climate. For many, though, swearing off flying isn’t a viable option. That’s where carbon offsets can come in. But how do you actually buy and use these offsets?

Carbon offsets compensate for your emissions by canceling out greenhouse gas emissions somewhere else in the world. The money you pay to buy offsets supports programs designed to reduce emissions. Those might include projects to develop renewable energy, capture methane from landfills or livestock, or distribute cleaner cooking stoves.

If you decide to buy offsets, you have a lot of choices. Some airlines give you the option to buy them through their sustainability programs. Many online companies and nonprofits also offer them.

To make sure your money ultimately goes to worthwhile projects, look for certifications by rigorous third-party auditors like The Gold Standard or Green-e. Companies and organizations that deal in carbon offsets will list these certifications on their websites if they have them. Some auditors also have databases of verified projects.

There is no fixed price on carbon, and the cost of an offset varies from project to project, depending on how expensive it is to run a given program, said Sarah Leugers, director of communications at The Gold Standard. In general, though, carbon offsets probably cost less than you think.

Consider a trip from New York to Los Angeles. Flying 2,500 miles in economy class will burn about 0.29 metric tons of carbon per passenger, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization’s carbon emissions calculator. And it will cost about $3.26 to offset the approximately six hour, one-way flight using the travel offset calculator by Cool Effect, a nonprofit organization. If you round up to a full ton of carbon, you’d still only spend $3.30 to $13.18 on the Cool Effect website, depending on the project.

Not all carbon offset programs are created equal, as made evident in a recent investigation of forestry projects by ProPublica. To shop smarter, check to see how much money goes to the organization’s overhead rather than to the project you want to support. And, keep an eye out for projects with collateral benefits, like contributing to sustainable development, improving air quality, or strengthening biodiversity.

If you’re really worried about the carbon impact of your travel, the most effective thing to do is avoid flying as much as possible. But, when that’s not realistic for you, carbon offsets can be a relatively inexpensive way to mitigate the damage.

As Japan’s senior climate change negotiator, Hideo Suzuki has faced some seemingly impossible problems.

His country has come under fire for its energy policies, including plans to expand coal use to make up for its floundering nuclear energy program. Japanese banks have also been criticized for financing of coal projects overseas.

But what’s an even bigger challenge facing Mr. Suzuki and his colleagues? Mr. Suzuki said the climate stance of the Trump administration has been dominating the diplomatic conversation for quite some time.

The administration has vowed to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, scoffed at dire predictions about the effects of climate change, and, at home, has rolled back a slew of environmental regulations.

If there’s no changing President Trump’s mind on the urgency of climate change, what’s the world to do? That’s a timely question, because top negotiators will be gathering in for two big climate summit meetings this year, first in September in New York and again in Santiago, Chile, in December.

Mr. Suzuki said the answer might be to just move on. Rather than keep battling the United States over the Paris accord, he said, climate negotiators stand to make more progress by shifting their approach.

“What’s important is to focus on specific efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions,” he said. “What can we agree on? What about climate innovation?”

Decarbonizing steel and other heavy industries should be one area of focus, he said, as well as cleaning up transportation with policies that promote electric vehicles and fuel-cell cars, or investing in carbon-capture technology.

“I think America is still on board with that,” Mr. Suzuki said.

One example of how America could be on board is a raft of new federal tax credits for industrial carbon capture are expected to spur its use across a range of industries, including steel, cement, chemicals and fertilizers.

That, Mr. Suzuki said, is the critical question for the climate talks that culminate in Santiago: How much can developing nations reduce their emissions, and how much can richer countries aid that effort through financing green technologies that will eventually benefit everyone?

“That’s ambition,” he said.


Hello, and welcome to a new Climate Fwd: occasional section! We get tons of email every week and, while we can’t answer every note, we read them all. And, some of them are pretty smart. So, we thought, why keep them to ourselves? The internet was made for sharing.

Last week, our One Thing contributor Tik Root wrote about trees and suggested that planting ficus could be a good option in Southern California. That’s true on several levels. They’re beautiful, they’re drought resistant, and they grow tall and provide plenty of shade. Several readers sent messages, though, to point out that they also have extensive root systems that can damage underground pipes and cables.

“I hope this isn’t a bias against the Left Coast,” one reader wrote. We promise you, it wasn’t. We just like to keep newsletter items short and sweet. But, for the record: Beware of ficus roots in residential areas.

Speaking of the Left Coast, we were also asked why we didn’t include a link to this United States Forest Service Climate Change Tree Atlas, which documents the current and possible future distribution of 134 tree species (and 147 bird species) in the Eastern United States.

Well, because it doesn’t cover a certain part of the country. But, it’s sill amazing. So check it out.

Thanks for reading Climate Fwd: and have a great week.