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Can carbon offsetting really work?

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pebbles make ripples

Randy Rieland

14 August 2017

It's time to look again at carbon offsetting. Planting trees isn’t the only way to offset emissions from plane trips. Eric Zimmerman and TripZero have better ideas for offsetting your travel. 

The latest in our #pebblesmakeripples guest features stream is from B Corp’s B the Change magazine.

Eric Zimmerman had just started thinking of himself as one of the good guys — a truly dedicated eco-warrior — when, in his words, he “stepped on the rake.”

Back in 2007, Zimmerman, the father of two young children, was already careful to limit his negative impact on the environment. He and his wife, Abby, spent a lot of money to make their Massachusetts home energy-efficient. He pushed the publishing company where he was an executive to become more environmentally responsible.

But Zimmerman had to face an ugly truth: Because he travelled so much for his job, usually by air, he was indirectly putting a lot of carbon into the atmosphere — by his estimate, 50 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year. That’s more than twice the 20-ton average for U.S. residents, according to the World Resources Institute.

“So, I was thinking I was Mr. Green, but I was actually Public Enemy №1,” he remembers.

Can Carbon Offsetting Work Pebble Magazine4

A long haul flight as a family can produce as much CO2 as one household produces in a year

That painful realisation set Zimmerman on a different path, one that in 2013 led him to launch TripZero, a company that helps travellers calculate the carbon footprint of their trips and then buys carbon offsets to compensate for the emissions they produce. Travellers don’t pay any extra — TripZero pays for the offsets with commissions earned when hotel rooms are booked through its service.

Zimmerman concedes that he was skeptical about getting involved with carbon offsets at first. Initially, his plan was to use the revenue to plant trees, but he was steered away from that notion, somewhat ironically, by friends at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. “They pointed out that if you’re just financing the planting of a tree, it’s unclear how much benefit that tree will create or whether it will still be around in six months, much less five years from now.”

They suggested that he consider buying certified carbon offsets. “The key word there is ‘certified,’ ” Zimmerman notes. “I wanted to be able to look at myself in the mirror and say that what I was doing was actually working. I have nothing against tree-planting projects, but when it comes to offsetting the carbon footprint created by travel, I have to know that it’s making a difference.”

People like to hear about social benefits, such as creating jobs or helping a community’s water get better. Some projects don’t make for great stories, but they’re super-efficient at destroying CO2

The Real Deal

Certified carbon offsets are financial certificates sold to people and organisations that engage in greenhouse gas-producing activities. The sales then finance the development and activities of emission-reduction projects, such as wind farms or solar-energy projects. TripZero focuses exclusively on offsetting transportation and hotel stays for individuals, businesses and events. To ensure that the offsets it buys truly compensate for the emissions its customers generate, TripZero works with companies such as Native Energy to funnel TripZero’s commissions into projects that have passed a rigorous authentication process and subsequent audits by certification programmes, such as the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS), the Gold Standard, the Climate Action Reserve, the American Carbon Registry and the Green-e Climate Standard.

Can Carbon Offsetting Work Pebble Magazine2

Wind farms and solar energy solutions are more likely to be accredited ways of carbon offsetting

What makes a good carbon offset scheme?

In determining whether an environmental project qualifies for offset credits, certification programmes consider several factors. First, the project must be verifiable. Can its results be consistently measured by a reputable third party? Another key factor is 'additionality'. Put simply, does a project result in a reduction in greenhouse gases that wouldn’t have happened otherwise? If, for instance, a factory moves ahead with a long-scheduled upgrade that lowers its emissions, it wouldn’t qualify. But if the sale of carbon offsets makes a new emissions-reducing project possible, that project would likely qualify.

Then there’s 'leakage'. This occurs when a project may appear to reduce harmful emissions in one place, but in reality only causes them to shift elsewhere. Say a landowner wants to use offset credits to keep a logging company from clear-cutting his land. If the loggers move their operation to a nearby comparable plot of land, that’s leakage, and it shouldn’t qualify for offset credits.

Finally, the impact needs to be permanent, or at least long-lasting. That gets back to Zimmerman’s point about tree-planting projects and why they can have more trouble qualifying for credits than projects that result in new infrastructure, such as wind turbines.

According to the 2016 report of the Ecosystem Marketplace, which tracks voluntary carbon-offset markets, the equivalent of about 84 million tons of carbon were offset in 2015, roughly a 10% increase from the previous year. Wind projects were found to be the most sought after.

You still do everything you can to reduce your emissions, and what you can’t, you offset

Thinking again about carbon offsetting

The offset business has had a somewhat checkered history, particularly in Europe, where offsets have historically been sold for carbon-reduction projects that didn’t actually exist. Some reportedly generated additional greenhouse gases instead of reducing them. Reputable offset companies, such as Native Energy, invest in projects that have passed muster through valid certification programmes. Native Energy also gets involved in project development directly through a programme it established called Help Build. It sells offsets to provide financing for new projects, such as wind turbines that power schools in Indiana, and methane-reduction equipment on dairy farms in Pennsylvania. Another offset company, Renewable Choice Energy, doesn’t develop projects, but works as an adviser, connecting clients to projects that align with their budgets or particular interests.

In some cases, companies just want to purchase a certain amount of offset, without much preference for where the money goes. Other firms are focused on a specific type of project to support with their offset investments. They might prefer offsets that fit with their businesses — a food company, for example, might want to invest in a project related to dairy farming, such as methane capture. Some place a high priority on projects that have additional positive effects, such as creating more jobs in a community.

“What we usually see as the main driver is location,” says Kevin Maddaford, Renewable Choice’s director of commodities procurement. “Companies may have operations in some location — could be in the U.S. or elsewhere — and they want to support something that corresponds to their operation.”

He acknowledges that the offset business has been tainted in the past by fraud, particularly overseas. “We needed to convince people that it wasn’t just vaporware, that there was something real to it,” Maddaford says. “It was complicated even more by people likening them to papal indulgences. We explained to people that the point of purchasing offsets was not to purchase them in a vacuum. You still do everything you can to reduce your emissions, and what you can’t, you offset.

“It took a while for people to understand that there are good organisations out there with clear, credible standards, that there are protocols that are followed, there are electric-tracking systems that allow for serialisation of certificates.”

Kevin Hackett, Native Energy’s director of client strategy, agrees that standards are now more stringent, and that offset buyers are savvier about which projects to be wary of. He suggests that the industry has moved far beyond the notion of offsets as simply a means of assuaging guilt for environmental wrongs.

“I can speak for clients we work for — Stonyfield Farm, Ben & Jerry’s, Clif Bar — and it’s obvious that’s not the case,” he says. “The actions they’re taking to reduce emissions, how they’ve changed how their industries work, clearly shows they’re addressing those issues and using offsets to augment those actions in an honest way.”

The most recent Ecosystem Marketplace report noted that 98% of the voluntary offsets purchased in 2015 were verified by an independent third party, with VCS the market leader.

Can Carbon Offsetting Work Pebble Magazine3

Hotels can have massive CO2 footprints. Check out their green credentials before you book.

Make your holidays count

At TripZero, Zimmerman operates on a more personal level. For most individuals, as he learned from his own sobering experience, air travel is the big emissions multiplier. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Information Administration, an average U.S. vehicle is driven enough to produce about 5 tons of carbon dioxide each year, and the average U.S. household produces the equivalent of 7.6 tons of CO2 annually. “If you take a family vacation with four people, say from Boston to LA, that’s an 8-ton trip,” Zimmerman says.

So, when people or groups book hotel rooms through TripZero, they’re asked to provide basic information about their trip, such as their mode of transportation, their origin and destination, and the number of passengers in their party. From that, the company calculates their transportation footprint. Then, it adds a hotel footprint based on when, where and how long the person is staying. Zimmerman points out that most people don’t think about all the things that can drive up a hotel’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“Generally, the more expensive the hotel, the bigger the carbon footprint,” he says. “The rooms are bigger. There are more luxury things, like swimming pools and Jacuzzis, that are running all the time. The first thing I do when I walk into a hotel room is unplug the refrigerator. It’s just crazy how much energy those tiny little things consume.”

TripZero is a small private company, and while Zimmerman didn’t want to share revenue figures from its hotel-booking commissions, he says business is “growing at a rate we’re really happy with.”

Carbon neutral conferences

A big factor has been the firm’s increasing focus on working with event organisers to help book hotel rooms for conferences and conventions. TripZero creates web portals that tell attendees about the carbon footprint of the event, explains how offsets work, and offers advice on how they can reduce their own footprints. He says people tend to notice when sustainability is incorporated into an event.

Last year, for example, TripZero worked with Social Capital Markets (SOCAP) in booking rooms for its annual conference. According to Lindsay Smalling, SOCAP’s producer and curator, about 2,500 people, coming from more than 40 countries, planned to go to the event in San Francisco. In previous years, SOCAP had provided a link on its conference-registration webpage that allowed attendees to offset their travel. But, not many people opted in. In 2016, SOCAP turned to TripZero.

“It was an obvious choice for us,” Smalling says. “In the end, TripZero was able to offset more than 3,400 tons of carbon. That covered the carbon footprint of SOCAP travel for all the attendees, not just the ones who booked hotel rooms through TripZero.”

Zimmerman says, “When you have so much international travel, a conference can create an enormous carbon footprint.” He says that, based on his experience using a credible greenhouse gas emissions calculator, the footprint for an event roughly averages out to 2 tons of CO2 per person. “So, for a 2,000-person conference, you could be looking at 4,000 tons of CO2. If you have people flying in from all over the world, it could be much more. And now that’s not consistent with many groups’ values.”

Zimmerman says other positive effects of offset projects, beyond the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, are sparking interest these days.

“People like to hear about social benefits, such as creating jobs or helping a community’s water get better,” he says. “Some projects don’t make for great stories, but they’re super-efficient at destroying CO2.”

Because individual footprints tend to be small, TripZero buys a portfolio of offsets, which means people can’t choose where theirs get invested.

“We explain to people that we support a number of different kinds of projects. We do renewable-energy projects. We do forest-protection projects. We do methane-reduction projects,” he says. “It’s important to do that because not many people raise their hand and say, ‘I want to support methane reduction.’ ”

Zimmerman says that despite indications that the Trump administration will be less committed to addressing climate change, he’s hopeful that the private sector will compensate by stepping up its efforts.

“The sentiment I’ve heard over and over from companies big and small is that now it’s time for the private sector to double down. And I believe them when they say it. I have a sense that there’s an increased sense of urgency.”

Zimmerman says he hopes airlines, hotel chains and others will enter the offset sector. “If the big travel companies copy us and compensate for travel’s carbon footprint because of TripZero, then we all win.”

Want more?

Discover five easy ways to carbon offset your travels.

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