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On carbon offsets, Wirecutter story doesn’t cut it

© Joshua Bousel/Flickr Creative Commons. Yasuní National Park in Ecuador

When it comes to buying goods and gadgets, you could do worse than to follow recommendations from Wirecutter, The New York Times’ consumer-review website. 

The same can’t be said about their recent article, “We Wish Buying Carbon Offsets for Your Flight Helped. It Doesn’t.” In fact, their conclusion is bafflingly wrong: Paying to protect an area of forest to offset the climate footprint of your flight does in fact — demonstrably and verifiably — help.

Let’s look at Wirecutter’s two main claims.

A question of ‘permanence’

“In most cases, carbon offsets do not capture or reduce real emissions,” the author writes, “and they have a dismal record when it comes to actually averting future emissions.” 

Wirecutter backs up this claim by linking to a reference article from the website Carbon Offset Guide about “permanence,” a term that refers to the durability of a forest that has been protected for offsets. Permanence is a very real challenge — after all, why pay to protect a forest if it’s burned or cut down a few years later? 

But most offset programs address this risk explicitly. For example, if you wanted to buy a house but were concerned about fire risk, you wouldn’t not buy a house — you’d buy insurance. Offsets programs are no different. (The two most common “insurance” measures in forest carbon projects are explained here and here. Wirecutter must have missed that.) 

The Carbon Offset Guide article goes on: “Scientifically, anything less than a full guarantee against [the loss of a forest’s carbon] into the indefinite future is not ‘permanent.’ ”

There is no universal scientific consensus on this assertion — something that Wirecutter could have uncovered with a little more digging. In fact, a carbon project that lasts only 20 years — while not ideal — is still almost always better than not having done the project at all, many experts say.

“Even if you were to protect a forest for 15 or 20 years, and then deforestation resumed at the same pace — that is, ‘business as usual’ — or lower than it was before, that’s still a net climate benefit,” Conservation International climate scientist Bronson Griscom told Conservation News in 2021

In other words, for two decades, those trees still sequestered carbon where they otherwise would not have; more remote parts of the forest that would have become accessible as a result of deforestation would have instead stayed intact; and money would still have flowed into the rural communities responsible for managing the forest. 

That seems like a good thing. 

Next up: The cost of carbon

Wirecutter writes: “Even if the projects these offsets supported were effective, they are so inexpensive … that what you pay wouldn’t come close to negating your share of environmental damage caused by flying.”

By this logic, you shouldn’t bother making a small donation to a fund aimed at, say, curing cancer — on its own, your $10 gift won’t amount to much.

But even then, Wirecutter is right about this: The full cost of a ton of carbon, accounting for its equity-weighted “social cost,” which the author gamely attempts to calculate, is less than what an airline would suggest a consumer should pay. That’s not the passenger’s fault. 

Even so, paying something is literally better than nothing: The cumulative purchases of carbon credits — and the market signals that this demand generates for credits globally — can amount to real impacts on the ground: In 2021, it was estimated that the value of this voluntary marketplace grew to US$ 2 billion — a significant amount of money aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions. 

And this money funds real action on the ground. Emily Nyrop, a climate expert at Conservation International, recently wrote about the benefits of one such project:

Take, for example, Chyulu Hills, nestled within one of East Africa’s most storied landscapes. This once-lush region of Kenya has endured years of stubborn drought—at times, severe enough to kill 90 percent of livestock. As agricultural income evaporated, pressure mounted to cut down nearby forests. In 2017, Conservation International helped launch a credit-generating project in Chyulu Hills, carried out in partnership with local Maasai people. In just five years, the program has brought in millions of dollars — income that helped keep the community afloat when the pandemic devastated ecotourism. That revenue also funded salaries for 100 park rangers combating poaching; scholarships for 500 students, as well as new teachers and classrooms; clean water infrastructure; and beekeeping supplies and training for women traditionally excluded from the workforce.

Can anyone honestly say that forest-carbon offsets “don’t help”? 

What we can do

Should carbon cost more? Should people try to fly less? Should we keep improving the science and systems of carbon offsets? 

Yes.

But even if people stopped flying tomorrow, the climate would keep warming thanks to the continued destruction of nature. Forest-based carbon credits are but a small way — really, one of the only ways — that an individual can make an immediate dent in what is otherwise a systemic problem.

In other words, there are not very many ways that you as an individual can cut your carbon footprint; buying carbon credits is one. So if you could do it, and it made even a small difference, why wouldn’t you? Why does Wirecutter tell readers that a verifiably effective way to slow the destruction of nature is not worth trying? Why does Wirecutter seemingly place responsibility for a systemic problem on beleaguered airline passengers? We don’t know.

So what does Wirecutter say you can do? 

“Calculate the equity-weighted carbon cost of the flights you do take,” the author writes, “and if you can afford to, donate that amount to a good cause that you’ve vetted yourself.”

What about a “good cause” such as investing in the protection of nature to help local communities, wildlife and the climate at the same time? 

We love Wirecutter. We wish they had done a bit more research on this one.

Bruno Vander Velde is the managing director of content at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Also, please consider supporting our critical work.