Do your homework before you buy carbon offsets – will they do what they promise? | Wifi 90.7

This story first appeared in WFAE’s weekly climate bulletin, issued Thursdays. Sign up for WFAE.org/newsletters.

Hundreds of companies across the country are purchasing carbon offsets these days to offset carbon emissions from their buildings, vehicles and travel. The goal is to reach “net zero” carbon emissions, at least on paper. But there are many doubts about its value.

In a radio story last week, I looked at how offsets are used in North Carolina and how companies are thinking about them in light of investigations that cast doubt on their value.

It’s a question not just for corporate buyers – but also for consumers – as we are now regularly called upon to buy offsets to offset carbon emissions in our daily activities.

If you can’t avoid your carbon emissions, why not look for a way to mitigate them? Think of it as a kind of carbon atonement, until our transportation and electricity systems complete the transition to clean energy, or until we change the way we do things (for example, using public transportation more often instead of driving cars every day). place).

And just a reminder why we’re doing it: The United Nations’ 2015 Paris Agreement called for limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or about 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, to avoid the worst effects of climate change, like extreme weather, heat, and high temperatures. Sea level rise. To achieve this, scientists say we need to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 and reach “net zero” by 2050.

Compensate your heating and cooking?

Piedmont Natural Gas, part of Duke Energy, markets a compensation program to its customers in the Carolinas and Tennessee called GreenEdge. (Disclosure: You may have heard messages about this program on WFAE.) I’ve been curious about this for a while.

Piedmont sells “blocks” of offsets to offset emissions from burning methane in a gas heater, hot water heater or stove. The company is one of many in the natural gas industry that now offers customers this option.

“The reason we do this is because we know that there are some individuals who want to proactively offset their carbon footprint for a variety of things that they do, whether it’s a vehicle, whether it’s the fuel they use to heat their homes,” said Sasha Weintraub, president of Piedmont.

Here’s how it works: When you sign up, you can choose what percentage of carbon you want to offset. Is it all your usage, half your usage? The units cost $3 per 12.5 heats of natural gas, or about a quarter of the average household’s monthly usage. The calculator on Piedmont’s website helps you find out. Some customers buy enough blocks to cover twice their usage, Weintraub said.

“What we hear when they write is that they are only doing it because they feel they can afford it for the good of the environment,” Weintraub said.

Piedmont, in turn, works with a supplier (which may eventually run the program itself, Weintraub says) that sets up projects that meet the goal of removing carbon from the atmosphere or supporting renewable energy projects. These projects currently include a forest management project in Doe Mountain, Tennessee; a landfill gas project in Davidson County, North Carolina; And a project to generate natural gas from animal waste in Maryland.

All the money goes toward projects and management, not Piedmont Natural Gas, Weintraub said.

In the first year in North Carolina, more than 1,500 customers signed up and purchased 5,616 carbon offset blocks. In June, South Carolina and Tennessee joined, and the program now has 3,615 individual and business clients across the three states. That’s still less than 1% of its roughly 822,000 total customers.

Weintraub sees growth in the future. “To have a voluntary program, where you’re increasing dollars on your bill, we realize that some of our customers won’t sign up for a variety of reasons. But we’re planning how we think we’re going to grow that program,” he said.

Carbon offsets for your trip

When you buy a plane ticket these days, you have the opportunity to offset climate pollution caused by burning jet fuel. Most airlines have arrangements with companies that sell offsets, so you can just add them to your cart when you purchase your ticket.

I experienced that when I flew to Boise, Idaho, this spring to attend the annual meeting of the Society of Environmental Journalists. I purchased a carbon offset through American Airlines’ nonprofit partner, Cool Effect, for $27.63, to cover about 1.9 tons of carbon dioxide.

The whole process was easy. Did I get what I paid for? The company says it “triple-checks” the science behind its offsets. They say they are spending money on projects like planting trees in Alaska or replacing polluting cookstoves in Honduras. You can see a gallery of projects on her website.

Some scientists question whether these programs are effective. It certainly saves money that can be invested in clean energy and environmental projects. Brian Jacob is the solar program manager at the Southern Clean Energy Alliance and previously worked on carbon credit programs for Coca-Cola. He said they play an important role in helping build climate-friendly projects.

“Let’s say it helps balance out the economic side of some of these investments. That’s what it was supposed to do, right?” He said.

The devil is in the details – carefully checking whether the project meets the stated criteria. When Coca-Cola wanted to buy compensation for air travel for its executives, Jacob said, it relied on an international certification program called the Gold Standard.

“That had Good Housekeeping’s stamp of approval on it. We can be confident that it wasn’t a phony carbon credit, it was legitimate,” Jacob said.

But news organizations and others have investigated and concluded that many of these programs may not be worth the hassle.

Many major companies are moving away from buying offsets and focusing on actually reducing their carbon output, by reducing their dependence on fossil fuels.

Bottom line: You have to do your homework. If you’re thinking about joining one of these programs, do a little research first.

Some critics point out that offsets are an alternative to actually reducing our carbon footprint. We may need compensation for a while. But “net zero” emissions — achieved through offsets or similar programs — is not the same as actually eliminating emissions or changing the way we do things.

I recently spoke with Noah Upchurch at Catawba College’s Center for the Environment, who put all of this into perspective.

“What is the point of achieving carbon neutrality?” Asked. “When you think about offsets and the quality of them, and if you’re an organization, and there are ways that you can directly reduce your electricity consumption, or other carbon-emitting activities, you know, we really make an effort to put those things first.”

In other words, don’t start with offsets. Start with real emissions reductions. Use offsets to fill the gap.

More about offsets

(Tags for translation)Air travel

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