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You Can Finally Offset Your Travel Emissions Accurately and Watch the Trees Grow

Sustainability News
by Tim Wenger Jul 2, 2021

This is The Climate Win, the most positive sustainability news around the world every week.

For a few years now, travelers worried about the environmental impact of their vagabonding ways have turned to carbon offset programs promising to neutralize the negative impact of all those flights and Uber rides. Travel companies have done the same in an effort to gain the business of an increasingly concerned public. But are these offsets making a difference, or is it just “greenwashing?”

Pachama is a company founded by a pair of Argentinians on a quest to make the vetting process for carbon offsets easier to understand. And, to ensure that the dollars invested by its users actually make it to vetted projects. Often, it turns out, many offset programs aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

When you contribute to a traditional carbon offset program, your donation typically goes to an environmental nonprofit in an amount intended to offset the carbon footprint of a specific activity you’ve undertaken — like a flight or road trip. Most major US airlines offer offset programs that calculate the total per-person emissions of your flight, and allow you to make a donation to offset that, directly through the airline’s website when you purchase your plane tickets or after you fly. Sometimes, a company whose employees travel will make large contributions in an effort to offset the emissions of all that travel.

The money often goes to tree planting and reforestation initiatives, or to the building of renewable energy infrastructure such as a solar farm. Some scientists and activists, however, have raised alarms about the “additionality” of these offsets — meaning, would they take place regardless of a vetted offset partner’s involvement? In other words, are the donations being made actually furthering an effort, or would that solar farm or reforestation have occurred even without them through, say, grants, government funding, or private investment?

Environmental groups including Greenpeace also argue that offsets, even if they do pull carbon from the atmosphere, are not a viable alternative to cutting emissions in the first place. What motivation does an airline have to move to cleaner jet fuel when the option is there to simply “offset” the pollution of its traditional fuel? A ProPublica report found that two major global offset initiatives dating back to the 1990s failed to produce anywhere close to the impact each had promised, and that buyers had thought they were contributing to, for reasons including a lack of sufficient initial funding from offsetters to create scaled impact and unforeseen policy issues that halted or reversed progress after it had begun.

Pachama aims to fill the gap between carbon offset donation and follow-through by using a technology it developed to measure the carbon sequestration of an area of forest, identify what needs to be done to protect or grow it, and create vetted offset credits in the form of an donation investment portfolio to do just that. It puts conservation and reforestation efforts into these “portfolios” based on location and lets users choose which portfolio to support. It then measures the impact of each portfolio on an ongoing basis, providing reports to donors about the specific impact their money has made.

Let’s say you are a resident of New England, or are a visitor who just completed a trip there. You may elect to donate to Pachama’s Northern Atlantic portfolio, currently working to protect forested areas surrounding the Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes and to improve management on a large-scale farming operation. Worried about deforestation in South America rainforests? You might consider a donation to the Amazon portfolio, fighting three deforestation efforts in Brazil and two in Peru.

To date, Pachama users have helped protect four million acres of forest in 12 countries. Companies can buy offsets for the organization or allow individual team members to contribute, and you could also create an account and track your impact on your own. The result is a more effective way to offset at least part of your carbon footprint — with the perk of being kept in the loop about what your money is doing.

More climate wins this week

The US Environmental Protection Agency has pledged $50 million toward environmental justice under the American Rescue Plan, announced on June 25. This money is designated to be distributed as “grants, contracts, and other agency activities that identify and address disproportionate environmental or public health harms and risks in underserved communities through a range of local initiatives” in underserved communities around the country, the EPA noted in the news release.

Oregon’s House of Representatives passed a bill this week that would require 100 percent clean energy by 2040, with interim goals of 80 percent by 2030 and 90 percent by 2035. The bill is expected to pass in the state’s senate and be signed by Governor Kate Brown.

In a good read on reducing the carbon footprint of our food systems, Dezeen reported this week on a company called Solar Foods, which is making a protein powder out of microbes that metabolize carbon dioxide. The result is a new meatless protein that uses less land to produce than traditional agriculture, including vegan proteins like farmed soy and nuts.

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