Big polluters pay millions for 'carbon offsets' — but do they really help the climate?

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images

What’s happening

Taylor Swift travels a lot. Between dates on her “Eras” tour, trips to NFL games and various media appearances, the pop superstar has racked up an extraordinary number of miles in transit on her private jet — and pumped a whole lot of climate-warming emissions into the atmosphere in the process.

Like many celebrities and major corporations, Swift reportedly invests heavily in programs that can counteract all those emissions, which are known as carbon offsets.

Though the details can get complicated, the idea behind carbon offsets is simple: Any person or company that creates emissions can pay money to promote projects — like forest protection, green energy development or “waste to energy” ventures — that will pull an equivalent amount of carbon out of the atmosphere.

This allows them to pollute while still having a “net zero” impact on the climate, or even a positive one if they purchase more “carbon credits” than necessary, as Swift apparently did for her tour.

Though the idea has been around for decades, the market for carbon offsets has exploded over the past few years as companies and nations seek to meet ambitious goals for reducing their contribution to climate change. In 2021, an estimated $2 billion was spent on carbon offset projects, with businesses in heavy-polluting industries like airlines and oil fuel companies buying up the largest shares.

But there’s strong evidence that most of the money spent on carbon offsets doesn’t really do anything to help the climate.

One investigation from The Guardian last year found that as much as 90% of rain forest protection credits, which claim to spare carbon-reducing trees from logging, are effectively worthless because the areas they purport to have saved weren’t actually at risk of being cut down. Several other inquiries have come to a similar conclusion that, for all the money and hype, carbon offsets don’t actually offset much at all.

Why there’s debate

In light of these findings, many environmentalists argue that the whole practice of carbon offsetting needs to end. In their eyes, the entire system amounts to little more than “greenwashing” that allows people and companies to deflect criticism for their climate-warming actions while they avoid doing the work that will actually make a difference — cutting the emissions they produce in the first place.

Others argue that, even if every dollar somehow went to legitimate offset projects, it’s still a dangerous mistake to tell ourselves that we solve climate change by planting trees or siphoning methane from landfills, rather than doing the hard work of rebuilding the world economy around green energy.

But optimists say carbon offsets really can make a big difference if a better system is put in place to ensure that the money goes to high-quality projects. The biggest advocates argue that we have no choice but to make carbon offsets work because, even in the most optimistic future scenarios, we’ll still need ways to pull carbon out of the air to counter emissions from industries that can’t realistically go green, like airlines.

What’s next

Skepticism about the effectiveness of offset projects has hurt the value of carbon credits in recent years, but most forecasters still expect the carbon market to grow dramatically over the next few decades. One recent estimate predicted that as much as $250 billion a year could be spent on carbon offsets by 2050.