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Do your homework before you buy carbon offsets — will they do what they promise?

Airlines will sell you carbon offsets to cover the carbon emissions from your flight.
David Boraks
Airlines will sell you carbon offsets to cover the carbon emissions from your flight.

This story appeared first in WFAE's weekly climate newsletter, which is out Thursdays. Sign up at

Hundreds of companies nationwide are buying carbon offsets these days to make up for the carbon emissions from their buildings, vehicles and travel. The goal is to reach "net zero" carbon emissions — at least on paper. But there's a lot of skepticism about their value.

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

It's a question not only for corporate buyers — but also for consumers — as we're being invited regularly now to purchase offsets to make up for the carbon emissions in our daily activities.

If you're unable to avoid carbon emissions, why not look for a way to mitigate them? Think of it as a sort of carbon penance, until our transportation and electricity systems have completed the transformation to clean energy, or we change the way we do things (e.g., taking public transportation more often instead of driving cars everywhere).

And just a reminder why we're doing this: 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, such as extreme weather, heat and sea-level rise. To do that, scientists say we need to cut carbon emissions 45% by 2030 and to reach "net zero" by 2050.

Offset your heating and cooking?

Piedmont Natural Gas and Dominion Energy both now offer carbon offsets in the Carolinas to help customers make up for carbon emissions in their daily activities. Dominion calls its offsets programGreenTherm. Piedmont, which is part of Duke Energy, is marketing a program in the Carolinas and Tennessee called GreenEdge. (Disclosure: You may have heard messages about this program on WFAE.)

With both companies, a typical household can pay $3 to $12 a month for "blocks" of offsets to equal some or all of their emissions from gas-fired heat, hot water or cooking. The companies are among many across the natural gas industry that now offers customers this option.

"The reason why we did it is we know that there are some individuals who proactively would like to offset their carbon footprint for a variety of things that they do, whether it's a vehicle, whether it's the fuel that they use to heat their home," said Sasha Weintraub, Piedmont's president.

Here's how it works: When you sign up, you choose what percentage of your carbon you'd like to offset. Is it all your usage, half your usage? Blocks are $3 each for 12.5 therms of natural gas, or about one-quarter of the average household's monthly use. A calculator on Piedmont's website helps you figure it out. Weintraub said some customers buy enough blocks to cover double their usage.

"What we hear when they write in is that they're doing this just because they feel like they can afford it to benefit the environment," Weintraub said.

Piedmont in turn works with a vendor (it may eventually run the program itself, Weintraub says) that lines up projects that meet the goal of either removing carbon from the atmosphere or supporting renewable energy projects. Right now these include a forest management project at Doe Mountain, Tennessee; a landfill gas project in Davidson County, North Carolina; and a project that generates natural gas from animal waste in Maryland.

All of the money goes toward the projects and administration, not to Piedmont Natural Gas, Weintraub said.

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

Weintraub sees growth ahead. "To have a voluntary program, where you're increasing dollars to your bill, we recognize that some of our customers would not sign up for a variety of reasons. But we are on plan with how we think we're going to grow this program," he said.

Carbon offsets for your flight

When you buy an airline ticket these days, you're offered a chance to offset the climate pollution from burning jet fuel. Most airlines have arrangements with companies that sell offsets, so you can just add it to your cart when you buy your ticket.

I tried this out when I flew to Boise, Idaho, this spring for the Society of Environmental Journalists annual meeting. I bought a carbon offset through American Airlines' nonprofit partner, Cool Effect, for $27.63, to cover about 1.9 tons of CO2.

The whole process was easy. Did I get what I was paying for? The company says it "triple verifies" the science behind its offsets. They say they spend the money on projects such as planting trees in Alaska or replacing polluting cookstoves in Honduras. You can see a gallery of projects on its website.

Some scientists question whether these programs work. They certainly provide money that can be invested in clean energy and environmental projects. Bryan Jacob is the solar program director at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and once worked on carbon credit programs for Coca-Cola. He said they play a valuable role in helping climate-friendly projects get built.

"They help to, let's say, balance the economic side of some of these investments. That's what they were intended to do, right?" he said.

The devil is the details — verifying exactly whether a project meets the stated criteria. Jacob said when Coca-Cola wanted to buy offsets for its executives' jet travel, it relied on an international certification program called the Gold Standard.

"That was a kind of a Good Housekeeping seal of approval on it. And we could be confident that it wasn't a sham 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 it.

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

The bottom line: You have to do your homework. If you're thinking of joining one of these programs, do a little research first.

Some critics note that offsets are a substitute for actually reducing our own carbon footprints. We may need offsets for a while. But "net zero" emissions — achieved through offsets or similar programs — are not the same as actually eliminating emissions or changing the way we do things.

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

"What is the whole point of getting to carbon neutrality?" he asked. "When you're thinking about offsets, and the quality of them, if you are an institution, and there are ways that you could reduce directly your consumption of electricity, 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 reductions in emissions. And use offsets to fill the gap.

More about offsets

David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.
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