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The federal government aims to address quality issues with carbon offset programs


It's summer, and if you're lucky, you may be booking a plane ticket or car rental for vacation.


And when you click buy, sometimes an offer pops up for something called a carbon offset to reduce climate pollution. But how can you know that offset is doing what it claims?

FADEL: Joining us now to talk about this is NPR's Julia Simon. Good morning.

JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So, first off, what really is a carbon offset?

SIMON: I spoke to Danny Cullenward at UPenn about this. He says an offset is basically a promise.

DANNY CULLENWARD: It's a promise that somebody else did something good somewhere else that resulted in a climate benefit.

SIMON: It could be a promise that someone protected a forest that would have been cut down or a promise that someone made a wind farm and switched from fossil fuels, the key promise being your money is actually reducing or removing planet-heating pollution, like that carbon dioxide pollution from your flight or your car rental. But Barbara Haya at UC Berkeley says there's a problem.

BARBARA HAYA: Most offsets don't represent what they claim.

SIMON: There are two big ways many offsets can be false promises. First, many offset projects overestimate their impact. For example, many offset projects that claim they're saving forests from deforestation, research finds many are getting money for forests that don't actually need protection.

FADEL: OK, well, that feels like a big problem if your money isn't actually reducing as much climate pollution as the offset claims. What's the other issue?

SIMON: Something called permanence. Offsets are supposed to reduce or remove carbon dioxide pollution - right? - the carbon dioxide. Some carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere hundreds of years. Some CO2 sticks around even longer - thousands of years. Here's the thing. The vast majority of carbon offsets only promise to remove or store CO2 emissions for 40 years or less. Cullenward says a 40-year promise of reducing emissions does not compare to a 300-year or several-thousand-year impact of carbon dioxide.

FADEL: So if a lot of these are false promises, is the government doing anything to address these issues with offsets consumers and companies are buying?

SIMON: Late last month, the Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, announced new principles for high-quality carbon offsets. High quality - that is offsets that actually reduce or remove climate pollution. But researchers say even these new principles have gaps. For example, the principles do not identify how long offsets have to keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere - no number. Also, these are just principles. Researchers worry without enforcement, these voluntary principles might or might not be followed. A Treasury spokesperson said though the principles released last month are voluntary, we believe they can help guide efforts to address the challenges.

FADEL: So then, is there any actual accountability if a carbon offset company makes a climate claim that's false? Is there a way for consumers to take action, or is there enforcement here?

SIMON: In California, there is a bill in the state Assembly right now. All those promises of climate benefits that carbon offset companies make - this bill would make those claims legally enforceable. Here's California state Senator Monique Limon, who introduced the bill.

MONIQUE LIMON: So if that company knows that I'm not getting what I paid for and you paid for it, you can take them to court.

FADEL: OK, we'll see if that carbon offset bill becomes a law. That's NPR's Julia Simon. Thank you, Julia.

SIMON: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.