Impact Series

I need to fly to Hawaii, however I don’t need to wreck the planet. With carbon offsets, can I do each?

Kauai, sweet Kauai. (Brent Roraback Photo)

The gift I best remember from my high school graduation was a pale blue stuffed whale. The parents of one of my oldest friends gave it to me, saying it was “one less whale that I’d have to save.”

Before and since then, environmental concerns have remained top of mind for me. I drive a Prius, eat mostly vegetarian and line dry my laundry. We recently replaced our gas-powered furnace and water heater with heat-pump models. While climate-inspired “flight shaming” hasn’t widely taken hold in the U.S. or even my green-leaning hometown of Seattle, I’ve generally limited my air travel to one or two flights a year.

But honestly, with my family almost fully vaccinated, I am eager to get out of town and have three flights booked for the remainder of 2021. As a result, my climate guilt has started to weigh on me — and got me thinking about carbon offsets.

The basic idea of offsets is pretty simple: you pay others to remove planet-warming, atmospheric carbon or prevent its release in order to compensate for the CO2 created by your own actions.

The sale of offsets, however, is deeply controversial for lots of good reasons. There is concern that these actions won’t deliver the promised benefits — that the forest conservation and green farming would still happen absent the purchases, that the same offset credits will be sold repeatedly, that the removal won’t be long-lasting, etc. Critics say the availability of offsets gives polluters a cheaper, easier alternative to cutting their own emissions. The removal efforts can be geographically far from the communities most harmed by climate change, providing them little direct benefit. The list goes on.

When it comes to removing carbon there are two approaches: natural solutions such as planting and protecting forests and farming practices that trap carbon in the soil, and industrial solutions including technology that captures carbon from the air for permanent storage.

Headlines have spotlighted some of the recent, serious failings in the offset space, particularly in the area of forest conservation. But carbon offsets and removal are in ever greater demand, and folks are working to develop legitimate programs and technology in the space.

Corporations including tech giants Microsoft and Amazon are using carbon removal in their gameplans for achieving ambitious carbon goals. Governments are pursuing carbon removal to shrink their footprints. Bill Gates said he’s purchasing offsets for his family (not sure if Melinda is still part of that calculus given their dissolving marriage).

And there are options for ordinary consumers. More than a decade ago, I wrote about a software engineer who spent $3,700 to settle his lifetime carbon debt up to that point after he fell in love with penguins on a trip to Antarctica. Options include offsets from Climeworks, a direct-air carbon removal company in Switzerland with backing from Microsoft and Gates; Seattle’s Nori, a platform for supporting carbon-trapping farming; and others.

So can I visit Kauai with a mostly clear conscience through carbon offsets?

“I don’t think this should be put on consumers to figure out,” said Noah Deich, president of Carbon180, a carbon removal, policy-focused nonprofit. “It’s just very hard for consumers to find easy carbon offsets for their daily activities that they can trust are actually offsetting carbon in a robust way, and are not particularly expensive.”

The island of Kauai. (Brent Roraback Photo)

Deich wants to see corporations, who can have a bigger impact, offering more carbon-friendly products and services for consumers. For air travel, for example, that could mean using clean aviation fuel or electric planes to prevent emissions in the first place. Microsoft last year signed an agreement with Alaska Airlines and SkyNRG to provide sustainable aviation fuel made from waste oils and agricultural residues to cover Microsoft employees’ flights between Seattle and California. But an overall greening of the airline industry is long, long ways off.

Carbon removal efforts, Deich and others emphasize, should be a means for negating historic emissions, not compensating for new ones.

It’s a lot to consider. Given the perplexing nature of the offset issue, I asked six climate-sensitive folks from the Pacific Northwest in tech, VC and academia to learn if they’re buying traditional offsets and get their thoughts about carbon removal.

Only one of the group is buying offsets. All are mindful of taking meaningful steps to reduce their own impacts and using carbon calculators to understand their most polluting actions and total footprints. They’re eager for manufacturers and regulators to share information to help consumers make climate friendly shopping decisions. Here are some additional highlights from their answers:

Scott Case, CEO and co-founder of Recurrent. (Recurrent Photo)

Scott Case, founder and CEO of Recurrent, a platform supporting used electric vehicle sales, formerly of EnergySavvy

“I constantly think about minimizing my carbon footprint by consuming less, traveling in less carbon intensive ways and investing in efficiency in my home and my vehicle. I’ve always had a bad attitude about carbon offsets because I think of them as, at best, a lazy solution to assuage personal guilt over consumption.

“For businesses, I mostly take a similar stance. Businesses are investing in carbon offsets because they are the easiest way to respond to customer and employee demands to move toward net zero. As a CEO, you write a check and something happens somewhere and you get to claim that you’re net zero. The tougher but more tangible option: invest in renewables, energy efficiency and resource efficiency in your own business and force your suppliers to do the same.”

Max Scher, Salesforce. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Max Scher, Seattle-based head of clean energy and carbon programs for Salesforce

“I usually support Proyecto Mirador, a clean cookstove project in Honduras. It’s one whose benefits I’ve been able to see firsthand. I do a full personal carbon footprint at the end of each year and purchase offsets for myself and often friends and family. For folks who are just starting to think about their carbon footprint, I suggest a somewhat more regular footprinting and offsetting so they can understand and focus on reducing their emissions footprint…

When I look to compensate for emissions I can’t reduce, I look for projects that help address multi-crises, like clean cookstoves which help reduce the millions of deaths each year from cooking over open fires or on rudimentary stoves.”

Allison Arnold, program director for E8. (E8 Photo)

Allison Arnold, program director for clean-tech angel investor network E8, which also supports Decarbon8-US, a publicly available investment fund

“To reduce my personal carbon footprint, I’ve upgraded to more efficient appliances, am improving my home’s insulation, am planning a replacement of my methane gas-burning furnace with an electric heat pump, and am investigating a purchase of a heat-pump water heater. If I had a home with better sun exposure, I’d also be interested in installing a solar PV system. Investing in these improvements should significantly reduce my personal carbon emissions, and save me money in the long-term…

“Given the vital importance of developing more ambitious laws and regulations to reduce carbon emissions, including putting a price on carbon, I encourage individuals to support the public policy advocacy organizations working tirelessly to effect such change. Individuals should also make their expectations for a livable climate clear by communicating directly with their elected officials.”

Rachel Praetorius, Amazon (Amazon Photo)

Rachel Praetorius, Amazon’s lead on sustainability and hardware operations for its Devices & Services

“I don’t do offsets in a regular way. I do measure my own carbon footprint and take very specific actions to reduce it…

“Carbon offset markets, especially at the consumer level, you don’t always know what you’re getting and until we have a more controlled marketplace for offsets with very credible nature and technology-based solutions, I’m just not there yet. I’m more focused on reduce which is very Amazonian. It’s reduce first, then offset, so I feel like I’m practicing what we preach.”

Dan Schwartz, director of the UW’s Clean Energy Institute. (UW Photo)

Daniel Schwartz, director of the University of Washington’s Clean Energy Institute

“I make many personal climate-conscious choices, but purchasing offsets is not something I do. …I like the idea of verified local offsets such as King County’s Forest Carbon Program, but it is not set up for easy individual consumer purchases. I’d be especially interested in making verified offset purchases tied to local tribal projects. Local offsets would give me the opportunity to see the benefits and judge the additionality of what I am purchasing…

“I’d bet on land management-based carbon removal to offset emissions from hard-to-replace fossil fuels in applications such as aviation. I’d bet against industrial carbon capture, storage and utilization becoming a cost competitive way to make fossil electricity low carbon, given that solar and wind energy are already cheaper on the basis of unsubsidized levelized cost of electricity.”

Amy Snover, director of the UW Climate Impacts Group. (UW Photo)

Amy Snover, director of the UW’s Climate Impacts Group

“I haven’t purchased any [offsets] because I haven’t done the hard work to figure out which ones (if any) to trust, and because I prioritize reducing emissions in the first place — although I recognize that I may be making the perfect the enemy of the good, since modern life doesn’t currently accommodate a zero-carbon emission lifestyle.

“So, maybe offsets are a necessary, interim, compromise? This is probably true, given that all/most scenarios for limiting warming to 1.5 or 2 degree Celcius rely on carbon uptake/offset technologies.”

Lisa Stiffler, GeekWire reporter

So where have I landed on the issue?

I keep thinking about a mantra often heard in the climate-tech sector, that the research, innovation and scaling of planet-saving solutions requires a dependable marketplace — people willing to buy the technology — to keep growing. To that end, Climeworks offers low-cost monthly subscriptions to pay for carbon removal. Decarbon8-US allows ordinary people to support climate-focused startups.

Maybe the answer for me isn’t a kilogram-for-kilogram accounting and offsetting of my emissions in a conventional sense, but continuing to live as carbon-lightly as I can and supporting various efforts to control emissions. One thing I’d like to find is a program to help others install efficient heat-pump appliances.

It’s plenty to consider from the shores of Hanalei Bay.

Editor’s note: A reader shared another interesting offset option through the nonprofit Portland-based Bonneville Environmental Foundation, which funds the capture of landfill gas, forestation and wind projects.

And another tip on two Northwest projects: Portland’s nonprofit Electrify Everyone project, which covers the costs of installing heat-pump water heaters in the homes of low-income people; and Green Buildings Now, an effort to help community groups led by racial minorities that are working to weatherize and decarbonize buildings on the campus of Seattle’s Bethany United Church of Christ.

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