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Refuting the carbon offset guilt myth — again

On a day when President Obama and President Hu announced new U.S.-China climate agreements in Beijing, the editors at the New York Times chose to give front-page visibility to a story that criticizes carbon offsets. Surely history will judge the progress announced by the American and Chinese leaders as more significant than the offset story. But the prominence of the offset article means it will float around for a while and thus it deserves a response.

The main premise of the article, which incidentally did not mention TerraPass by name, is that people buying offsets for air travel are merely assuaging their guilt, not reducing emissions. With respect to the guilt argument, we have regularly surveyed TerraPass customers and found this to be a myth. In fact, our customers see offsets as one part of a multi-faceted strategy to reduce their carbon footprint. They use public transportation when possible, conserve energy at home, and buy energy-saving products. Since such steps reduce but don’t eliminate emissions, TerraPass customers use offsets to balance out the remaining impact.

The Times’ story quotes a travel company director saying that people view offsets as a “get-out-of-jail-free card.” That image of irresponsible indulgence simply isn’t supported by the evidence. Every study we’ve done shows that TerraPass customers are among the most committed environmentalists. They take time to understand their impact on the planet and then take practical actions to live more sustainably. They are also active politically by urging their representatives to enact strong policies to deal with global warming.

Another implication in the article is that if offsets don’t solve the entire problem of aviation-related greenhouse gases, they are not worth doing at all. The reporter quotes a climate researcher, who says “Buying offsets is a nice idea, just like giving to a soup kitchen is a nice idea, but that doesn’t end world hunger.” No one buying an offset is under the illusion that this is the total answer. Travelers need to cut down on non-essential trips. Airlines need to pursue alternative fuels and more efficient aircraft. Governments need to regulate aviation emissions within cap-and-trade programs and invest in high-speed, low-carbon rail service between major cities. But all of those steps will take time to implement. Meanwhile, offsets can generate real emission reductions right away.

The article also questions whether offsets are actually reducing emissions. It cites several offset projects from other companies that did not work out as planned. This is a helpful reminder for buyers to shop carefully and choose offset providers whose projects are independently verified. TerraPass has made transparency the hallmark of our business. We list every project on our website and post the internationally accepted standards that we follow. Our landfill and livestock farm projects are reducing emissions of methane – one of the most potent greenhouse gases – at 20 locations around the U.S. Every day, our carbon management team is studying new projects that could be added to our portfolio.

As the media tries to cover the climate change beat, critical stories about offsets seem to receive a disproportionate share of attention. That may be part of the burden of innovation. However, if TerraPass and other industry leaders continue to emphasize transparency and accountability with our projects, offsets will remain an important source of emission reductions and a vital strategy in responding to climate change.

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